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navel gazing

cultish

I started listening to the Conspirituality podcast today, a show that interrogates the overlap of the spirituality/wellness community and conspiracy theory-driven groups, in particular QAnon. I’ve just gotten through the first episode and part of the second, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has interest in mis/disinformation, critical wellness discourse (e.g., The Dream), conspiracy theories and extremism (from a, y’know, healthy distance), mythology, and/or human psychology. As I was listening to it and walking through the urban wilds of southwest Boston today, I couldn’t help but remember the time I was almost recruited for a cult.

It was in the fall of 2016, when I was going through a bunch of life changes and still healing from some personal challenges in the two years leading up to it. I was volunteering with the Friends of the Somerville Public Library at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, selling used books under a tent and drinking a hot cider on a dreary, wet October day. At some point, two people, a middle-aged woman and a young man closer to my age (28 at the time) approached me. We talked for a long time about books and reading, and at some point once we’d been going on for quite a while, the woman asked me if I wanted to get together with them to talk further. I thought this was just Somervillain friendliness, and didn’t think too much about what their connection to each other was, and I gave her my number.

The three of us got together for a drink at a bar in Union Square maybe a week or two after we met. I can remember a coffee meeting a week after that, another dinner meeting not long after, and a final meeting where I think I ghosted them, but it’s been a few years and I’m not sure on the specifics of what happened when. At some point, it became pretty clear to them (in particular the woman) that I was going through a tough time, and I think a) that’s why I was their mark and b) the older woman/younger man duo was 100% orchestrated with the intention of grabbing the attention of someone like me (a single, lonely young woman who probably had all kinds of vibes of needing to be mothered and loved).

I was experiencing a drawn-out falling out with my roommate that I don’t want to detail explicitly in a public place, but suffice it to say she and I were very close before that and something happened that fundamentally altered my view of our friendship. I was about to change jobs, too (and I think this overlapped with my time at my new job), and I had begun planning to defect to East Boston to live with a couple I’d become close to in the last half a year. It was a very lonely and confusing time of not being sure I’d made the right choices and not knowing which changes I should make (years of precarity didn’t really get me thinking clearly about, like, buying a car or anything). When I started my job, I was immediately overwhelmed, isolated, and in over my head, and the 90+ minute commute I now had vs. my speedy one to the North End was kicking my ass. After those long days, coming home where things were feeling tenuous and awkward was just… not awesome. And of course, a week before I started my new job was November 8, 2016.

Anyway, back to the cult duo. I don’t know what I pegged their relationship to be when I first met them – maybe mother and son? maybe dating? – but it became clear that they were united by something else by the second time we met up. The third time we got together was when the woman pitched the … thing to me. I can’t for the life of me remember what she called it now. The Plan, The Question, The Answer, The Practice, The … something. The fourth and final time we got together, I remember they shared some more details about it with me, including a piece of advice the woman had received from her… cult advisor about being on time, after I mentioned I was chronically late. She said something about how her… cult advisor admonished her for being late because it made her look selfish and like she believed her time was more important than others’ – I’m not pointing this out because it was particularly unique or insightful, I just remember it so clearly. It’s been long enough now that I don’t remember many other specifics about it, but I recall these snippets:
1) “it” was “held” in rotating locations around the Boston area
2) there was some kind of group component as well as some kind of teacher/student or mentor/mentee situation
3) they did seem to have some sort of active recruitment effort
4) they made me swear I wouldn’t mention it to anyone

A couple things happened after this that probably got me out of harm’s way with these people (although my intuition was going AW HELL NO for quite a while before the end), but I think were entirely reflective of my mental state at the time. One is that I did move to East Boston, and that sort of put the nail in the coffin of my friendship with my roommate, though it took a while to actually get to that point. I was exceedingly unhappy there and of course that led to a whole other mess that I don’t have the energy to delve into atm. The other is that I found myself in a relationship with a married father of three, a person who identified me as a mark in much the same way as the cult duo had. I was lonely, overwhelmed, and all kinds of vulnerable. That’s why the fact that this person, who I’ll call Randall Exeten, is still able to find directorships in Massachusetts libraries is especially bothersome to me – he’s a manipulator who preys on the vulnerable, much as a cult tried to in my time of need. Instead of the actual, literal cult, I guess he became a cult-like presence in my life. I didn’t snap out of it until a series of misfortunes and a memory-wiping brain injury finally knocked some fucking sense into me.

I’m writing about this because I think it’s important for folks to realize that we’re all vulnerable to manipulation, even people like me who have been cynical and agnostic-if-not-outright-atheist since adolescence, and there’s a lot of shit we go through that we might not call a cult or a conspiracy mindset, but it’s not so very different after all. This is part of why the whole info lit/fake news/media literacy convo going on right now feels so inadequate to me. We’re all somebody’s marks at some point, and QAnon and the like are, at the very least, trying to cast a wide enough net to appeal to everyone’s vulnerabilities. And sometimes we really want to believe, or we just do believe, and we’re sure as hell not going to check the credibility of our sources.

That said, I was remarking to CS last night that I can’t imagine a reality in which I ever would have subscribed to the QAnon bullshit, but that’s probably because I am 1) not a white supremacist, 2) not a disenfranchised man, and 3) generally have empathy for my fellow human beings. Unfortunately, I have relatives who have bought the whole QAnon farm, and I’ve seen other people I used to follow on social media slowly delve deeper in it; maybe most surprising of all is a certain guy who used to be a central figure in Boston’s electronic music scene. This post is not suggesting empathy for these people, just positing that responding to or trying to push back on this is tied so thoroughly up in beliefs borne of vulnerabilities we may never be able to see or understand, and that’s what’s scary as hell about it; I’m not sure I buy that more/better information can cure it.

tl;dr: Don’t join a cult.

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