I Survived Being In A Terrifying Cult, And Barely Got Out With My Snacks

On a crisp fall day in the early 2000s, I found myself walking out of a day job. I had given no notice and told no one. I packed up an assortment of office supplies and my personal drawer full of candy and left. When my boss called me to find out where I had gone I blamed a “family emergency.” The “family emergency” was that my parents’ daughter had been unwittingly working at a cult for six months and she needed to get the fuck out of there.

Here’s how it went down.

I was fresh out of college with a theater arts degree, so I knew a shitty day job was in my cards. After replying to a Craigslist listing for an executive assistant/receptionist at an “Institute” I found myself in a conference room surrounded by many variations of “cat lady” (I’m a cat lady myself so I can say that.)

A quiet woman entered and gave me and the other cat ladies a series of personality tests. I had never taken a personality test before but treated it like an audition and played the part of “someone who knows how to fill out personality quizzes.” After each test was graded, the ones with unacceptable scores were asked to leave. Soon, I was the only cat lady left standing. I had gotten the job! I felt smug about my personality and was eager to start making beer and cigarette money. 

The “Institute” consisted of many tiers of “life-coaches,” aka, people with no formal training or degree who charged over $400 per hour to scream at you. My boss (the “Guru”) was a raving madman, which was hilarious to witness but terrifying to experience first-hand. He would only ever scream or talk softly; there was no in-between, normal voice. He took bizarre illegal “supplements” that enhanced his anger. He would have daily rages where he broke several computer keyboards by throwing them or stomping on them.

His patients/clients would leave his office in tears and the couples he counseled always fought more after their sessions. The employees on staff were encouraged to “tattle” on one another to him on a regular basis. Bonus checks were determined on how well he thought you were “living your best life.” The vibe was, needless to say, bad.

I knew the “Institute” was weird but the whole idea that it might be an actual, honest-to-god cult never crossed my mind. I was too busy day-dreaming about my real life that existed after 5 p.m.: the excitement of improv auditions, first dates, and finding new ways to smoke weed. Plus, they let me put flyers for my improv team on my reception desk, I had plenty of time to troll for hot dudes on MySpace, and there was always food to steal in the office fridge. But even those perks didn’t cancel out the feeling of dread that hung in the office air like a failed Febreeze coating.

All of the “Institute’s” income came from their “weekends” and “trainings.” These were events where they charged a large amount of people a large amount of money for their mysterious life-coaching…thing. As an employee, I was supposed to go to all these weekends and trainings but I insisted I couldn’t because of my many rehearsals and shows (translation: boys and bars).

Finally, after six months of dodging them, I was forced to attend a “weekend” or I would be let go.

The “weekend” took place in the large conference room with about 70 attendees. Bright flashing lights and a stage had been brought in for the occasion, making the room look like a sad wedding reception. Attendees were forced to talk into a microphone and share (TBH the best/worst stand-up routines I’ve ever seen) and the Guru was constantly goading people to get up on the stage and “DANCE!!!”  The Guru led us in chants, dances, and meditations, all of it interspersed with clips from ’80s movies about power and success.

I resisted the sharing and dancing wholeheartedly, as I was too busy feeling strange and panicked and looking for an escape. All the unison movements, flashing lights, and chanting were making me feel weiiiiiiiird.

My boyfriend at the time (who is now my husband) picked me up early from the event and he was very concerned. “Are you okay? You seem off somehow,” he said. I agreed. I felt blurry and not in a good way. I needed to shake if off with an evening of good food, weed, and sex.

After a night of those soul-centering pastimes, I felt more like myself again and went back into work on Monday just like normal.

“Great dancing on Saturday, Lauren!” my co-worker said cheerily. “But… I didn’t dance,” I insisted, remembering how uncomfortable their weird group dancing made me feel. I know I did not get up on that stage to dance.

“But we have it on tape!” my co-worker insisted. “Wanna watch it?”

I said no because I didn’t want to watch myself doing something I was sure I didn’t do. Or did I??? No, I totally didn’t. Or, maybe I did??? 

The next “training” they needed me to do was at their other location in the deep woods of a neighboring state but I couldn’t bring myself to cross state lines with these nut-bags, let alone be defenseless in the woods with them.

The terror of the upcoming “training weekend” was weighing heavily on my mind and I started to think about what I had been seeing. Why were all the clients at the “Institute” glossy eyed and overly emotional? Why were they paying so much money for happiness but getting sadder? Why did all the staff members have no contact with outside family or friends? Why did the “Institute” keep having to change its name? Why did they get sued a lot? What was the deal with all the “drinking the Kool-Aid” jokes? The red flags were everywhere, making it impossible to keep working.

I was sitting at my reception desk and couldn’t focus. So I decided to google the “Institute” + “cult.” The first page of search results was flooded with links. I clicked on one that took me to a cult-victim message board and the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.

“The Guru has ruined my life and cost me over $10,000.”

“I lost my sister to this cult and I’m worried about her safety.”

“They left me naked and bleeding in the woods during the Men’s Training Weekend.”

After I read that sentence, I turned off my computer, grabbed my office supplies and snacks, and ran away never to return.

I often think back to that time and get the grateful-sweats I didn’t get sucked into the cult of the “Institute.” I was the perfect candidate: living alone, family in another state, no religious beliefs to speak of, but yet I was able to extricate myself easily. Did I survive the cult because of my strong moral fiber? Or was it my sturdy Midwestern upbringing? Or perhaps my cunning and intelligence? Nah. I’m pretty sure it was just my three guardian angels: sex, drugs, and theater.