On Breaking the Code of Silence

ICSA Today, Volume 4, Number 2, 2013, pages 6-7

On Breaking the Code of Silence

Kristen Skedgell DeVoe

In order to speak, one must have a voice. Now this might seem obvious to most people, but to people who have been abused in a cult, having a physical voice did not mean they could speak their truth. The individual’s voice has been taken over by another, stronger voice, the voice of the leader. Through a variety of influence and control techniques, often lumped together as “mind control,” the cult leader imposes his will and views on the follower, so the follower loses her own will and views. When mind control is accompanied by physical or sexual abuse, the task of speaking up becomes even more complicated and difficult for the follower.

In my case, I was in a Bible-based fundamentalist cult that charged high fees for long classes on the veracity and supremacy of the Word of God. People were subjected to hours and hours of teaching to control their minds with Scripture. The methods, not the doctrine, employed to accomplish the goals of world domination by the group were very harmful. The leader wielded his control through intensive psychological indoctrination and sexual contact.

I remember one incident vividly in which I questioned “the Doctor,” the leader of the group, about the ethicalness of his behavior. He quoted Scripture and explained that I needed to be “spiritually mature” to understand. The Doctor taught that if one’s mind was pure enough, one could do anything with one’s body. God did not care about the flesh. The sexual needs of the leaders were to be satisfied by females who were submitting to “the will of God.”

He commanded me to keep our sexual encounters in the “lockbox of my soul”—never to be spoken of or revealed to anyone else. “What if someone finds out?” I asked naively. “Why, I’d lie,” he said. I was shocked. Adultery was certainly wrong, but lying about it was even worse. I was a chronic truth seeker. How was the lockbox consistent with the truth? How could behavior that was done in secret be consistent with the openness he advocated in his teachings? I am talking about behavior that is harmful to oneself or others. Sex per se is a natural act; but when there is a societal taboo or power differential between the parties, then sex is wrong. Women, children, and men forced by mind control into physical or sexual submission are being abused.

What is mind control? Geri-Ann Galanti, PhD, defines mind control as “the use of manipulative techniques that are for the most part extremely effective in influencing the behavior of others.” Now this definition could apply to recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and motivational programs such as Weight Watchers. But cults differ in one important way. Cultic leaders employ negative manipulative techniques based on “deception, dependency and dread.” (see Recovery From Cults, edited by Michael Langone, PhD; W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1993.) When one is experiencing abuse, these manipulative factors are always at play. And secrecy is a big part of them.

Sexual predators and batterers know the power of silence. They abuse their victims, and then swear them to secrecy. This method ensures that not only is the abuse hidden from society, but it also becomes hidden from the victims. The truth of individuals becomes concealed for them to survive. It is a function of abuse for the abuser to shame the abused, first by the humiliation of the act, and then by the secrecy in which the act is performed.

When the victim’s pain of silence becomes greater than the pain of disclosure, freedom becomes possible. But freedom can be a scary proposition, too. Freedom means independence and autonomy, which can threaten a follower’s childlike dependency on a leader. The tacit agreement between cult leader and follower is “If you remain silent, I will take care of you,” or a variation of that, “If you tell, I will reject you; and you need me to survive.” To the victim, truth telling seems to jeopardize her very existence when, in fact, it is the way to wholeness.

So how does one open the lockbox? Where does one find the courage to speak in the face of fear and shame, the double-edged sword of oppression? First, one must make the choice to heal. Healing is always a choice, not an accident. Often propelled by suffering, the individual decides whether to passively “accept one’s fate” or actively pursue a way to freedom. It is a mystery why some people choose to heal and others do not. Individuals vary. For some, the choice may be obvious and swift. For others, it may take a long time to come to that essential decision.

Once the decision to heal has been made, one must begin the process of opening up by sharing his true feelings. Just as Pinocchio became a “real boy” when he told the truth, so the magic of genuine self-disclosure allows one to become who he is. But this disclosure must happen in a safe place. Safety is essential to building trust. Continual assaults in the past at the heart of one’s being make it hard for one to trust others. Safety allows one to make tentative stabs at reality without fear of punishment.

Experience teaches abused people not to trust anyone as a way of survival. But they must make small steps in the direction of trust in order to heal. There are individuals in society who are trustworthy. Shamans and priests were once the hearers and witnesses of truth. In today’s society, credentialed psychotherapists, counselors, and teachers who are bound by a code of ethics can help those who have been abused learn to trust again. These professionals bear witness to each of these individuals’ truths.

Initially, people may become depressed, if not suicidal when they come out of an abusive cult and take steps toward healing. The realization of their losses—the loss of time, the loss of identity, the loss of one’s self—can be intolerable. But depression keeps them stagnant. It slows them down; it keeps them down, locked in the cycle of oppression.

For many, opening the lockbox is a byproduct of expressing their anger. Anger is the vehicle that drives the truth into the open. Victims must not only feel their feelings; they must also see the cult leader for what he was—an abusive sociopath, not a loving presence. It is not enough that the abuse caused suffering. Suffering accompanied by resolve becomes the catalyst for change. The victims need the spark of indignation that enables them to recognize the unfairness and imbalance of power in their situation. Then they begin to puncture the membrane of silence that leaves them isolated from the world.

They penetrate the code of silence through their initial decision to heal and their courage to begin to tell the truth about themselves in a safe place. This process, accompanied by education about physical, sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse, allows individuals to start on the journey toward wholeness. True expression of their feelings, especially anger, makes healing possible. As these individuals grow stronger, they may even expand the stage of disclosure to include the world at large.

So, then, truth begets truth. Light begets light. But it is not enough to know the truth. Survivors of abuse are accustomed to disconnecting psychologically and emotionally from a painful reality. This dissociation is a major survival tool. To heal, it becomes necessary for these survivors to connect with themselves, not dissociate from the trauma. Again, in mind-control situations, connecting with themselves becomes doubly difficult because their conscience, overtaken by the cult leader, has become an inner abuser and oppressor.

This inner taskmaster demands silence and compliance. One risks not only separation from society but annihilation of a part of the self. Like a giant parasite, the abuser needs the abused in order to survive.

But what happens when the abused need the abuser? When the abused internalize the voice of the abuser and continue to be oppressed, long after the abuser is gone? Even when the objective reality has been changed, the abused can sometimes experience a great deal of terror. This is the terror of being free, the terror of breaking the code of silence and the perceived dire consequences that will ensue (i.e., insanity, illness, death). But the true consequences of speaking up are freedom and joy, the very things that the oppressor does not want for the oppressed. Their silence is how he keeps them down. They learn to be helpless in the face of abuse. Again, to overcome learned helplessness, they must allow themselves to feel their genuine feelings and speak out about them.

Trauma experts have long advocated the necessity of “bearing witness” to one’s abuse. Why? Because truth is acknowledged and affirmed in the context of community. Personal truth becomes understood when it is spoken. Lies keep one isolated and separate. Speaking the truth of one’s own reality allows one to belong to the world. One is no longer alone. But it doesn’t stop there. One must question destructive assumptions and become educated about individual rights.

The truth of human experience proclaims the imperative to live and be free, not to be in bondage. Just as a flower is meant to bloom, each person is put here to blossom forth in her true nature. One must believe one has the RIGHT to live in order to own one’s experience. When one realizes the truth of being alive (or becomes aware of its opposite—the mandate NOT to live independent of the leader), one is able to break the bonds of mind control. On begins to question negative assumptions through critical thinking and education. Once one fully comprehends the right to exist, then acting on the right to bear witness to one’s life and experience becomes possible. Negative distortions of reality are replaced with positive assumptions, which result in one coming to understand the right to be happy and free.

For many years after leaving the cult, I was suicidal. Years of abuse and oppression had made me believe that I deserved to be punished for leaving the group. I was brainwashed into thinking that living without my leader would destroy me. Earlier trauma and abuse reinforced the idea that I was no good and deserved to die. But now I realize that that is not true. Through counseling and education, I have learned that I deserve to live. I have a right to speak my truth.

Now that the lockbox has been opened, I do not take anything for granted. Like the skier healing from a broken leg, I am learning to use my muscles again, learning to walk psychologically. I am learning what it feels like to live and be free. I am learning to tolerate good things. I am learning to accept the sound of my own voice. Knowing now that I HAVE a voice, I am learning to use it. Perhaps, one day, I will even learn to sing.

About the Author

Kristen Skedgell DeVoe was born in Nyack, New York. When she was 14, she was recruited into The Way International, a religious fundamentalist cult, and remained active until age 29 when her mother rescued her. After leaving the cult, she attended Johns Hopkins University then earned master’s degrees from Yale Divinity School and Columbia University School of Social Work. Her book Losing the Way: A Memoir of Spiritual Longing, Manipulation, Abuse and Escape (Bay Tree Publishing, 2008) recounts her experience in The Way. She lives happily with her husband, artist Edward Spaulding DeVoe, in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains where they enjoy their six children, four grandchildren, and rescue dog, Addison.