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The Lure of the Cult: Koethi Zan Shares her Experiences

Author Koethi Zan had some real life experiences which fuelled the chilling, claustrophobic tale told by her protagonist Sarah in her novel The Never List.

They make for frightening reading…

Over to Koethi:

‘When I was nineteen, I was the perfect target for a cult. And, sure enough, one found me.

Years later, my novel, The Never List, would just so happen to feature an enigmatic religious sect. Yet, in the way that such things go, it was only after I finished writing the book that I realized it was based on this peculiar experience I’d had in college, one I’d relegated to the status of amusing cocktail party anecdote. In retrospect, though, it wasn’t funny at all. It had been dangerous. And, reading between the lines of my book, I could tell I was obviously still parsing through its meaning in my life.

It was my second year of college and I’d been estranged from my parents for a year at that point (we would never reconcile). I suppose I was vulnerable, trying to process a dysfunctional, abusive family past from within the whirlwind of newfound, exhilarating freedom. I could be anything. I could do anything. I could join anything.

It didn’t help that my spiritual life to date had been one upheaval after another. I was raised Southern Baptist until I was ten, and then, thanks to my mother’s remarriage, converted to Catholicism, from fire-and-brimstone to leaning, white-veiled, over the baptismal font overnight. Through junior high, I wore a scapular and recited my rosary daily, trying hard to make myself believe what they told me.

But by college, I’d had a final cataclysmic break with my family and their religion to boot. I was on my own. Strong, I thought. Free, I thought. But maybe I was looking for a substitute for one or both. Maybe it was scary to be so free.

By chance, it turned out my boyfriend’s family was deeply committed to a ‘study group’ that was just open to new members – ‘special’ people like me: smart, thoughtful, philosophically-minded youth who wanted to improve themselves. I was invited to join. I convinced my roommate, Ann, a slightly spiritual art major with a wicked sense of humor, to come with me. What could be the harm?

The harm, it turned out, was that ‘study group’ was a euphemism for ‘international cult.’ I’m afraid to include the name here, but, with national headquarters in New York City and divisions all over the world, they knew what they were doing when it came to recruiting.

Their cosmology was ‘complex.’ Not everyone could understand it, they said. It goes without saying that drew me in. And also, I’m ashamed to say, there was a routine B-plot to the story – how contrived, I’ll never know. In that first study group session, an absolutely beautiful, demure girl with exotic looks and an advanced understanding of the cosmology sat next to me. And next to her was my boyfriend. Both were about to move to the ‘next level,’ which met at a different time. Obviously, I had to get there too.

They were cunning, those cult leaders, the way they played on my emotions. How did they know how easy it was to make me feel insecure, inferior, and incomplete even while pretending to have the exact opposite goals? They told us they were teaching us to master ourselves – sounded great – but in fact they were the masters. They wanted us to think the way they told us, move the way they told us, and submit to them completely. And when we were appropriately dutiful, they rewarded us gently with encouragement – we were improving, growing, developing. We were inching our way toward spiritual fulfillment.

Each week I would have a task to carry out when I returned from our study sessions. They seemed harmless enough: look at the ceiling when I entered a room, use a different hand when brushing my teeth, eat with a spoon at all times. This ‘work’ was supposed to make me mindful, self-aware, ‘present to the moment.’ But in reality, this was the first step to having them micromanage my thoughts in absentia. Every time I looked at the ceiling when I entered the room, they might as well have been there.

And naturally, they emphasized the value of sacrifice and commitment to the group. A few months in, when Ann and I were finally invited to their ‘retreat,’ we were given grim menial tasks renovating the house the group had bought for its headquarters. As a low-level novitiate, I was given the job of scraping old varnish off the floors. It took hours. Only now do I realize the significance of it – there I was, on my hands and knees, being physically taught to submit.

It got worse. Later that weekend, we were driven to an elementary school gym they’d rented out. No one explained what was happening as they organized us into rows about six feet apart from one another. Ann and I were placed in front, so our embarrassment could be on full display as the pianist hit the keys hard. The empty space echoed with low, abrupt dissonant chords, each one a command. And so the sacred dances began.

Everyone else knew the postures. I turned my head slightly – breaking the rules – and saw my boyfriend and that girl moving effortlessly in tandem in the back of the room. I was failing. I clearly didn’t have the proper mind-body connection. My first thought was that I needed more instruction. I needed more time with the group. I could surely master this.

But my next thought was that the group had made their first mistake.

Ironically, it was the bad childhood – complete with a need to please that had never been fulfilled – that made me vulnerable to the cult, but it was also what kept me from slipping into it, and eventually made me run. It started to dawn on me there, on that basketball court, that I had managed to escape one controlling situation, and here I was, possibly giving up that hard-won freedom to someone else.

But it was Ann’s sense of humor that gave me the final push. After the first night of the retreat, we stopped at an art supply store, where we bought a dozen packages of Sculpey in rainbow colors. With her clay modeling tools and the oven in the basement of our dorm, we made tiny figurines to represent the various players in their strange cosmology. We laughed, maybe a little nervously, as we held them up and gave them voices. It broke the tension we were loath to articulate.

The next day, back at the retreat, we sat in rows while the guru visiting from New York City led us in a lengthy meditation. I felt panicked, trapped. That’s when I had the lucky spark that rebelled against it once and for all. Something in me said, I’m not falling for this. It was at that moment that I didn’t want to be there anymore. And it was at that moment that I became afraid they might not let me leave.

I opened one eye, hoping I wouldn’t be noticed, and glanced over at Ann. She seemed deep in meditation. I would have to go on my own. I slipped out of the room into the next one over, intending to make my way to the foyer on the far side of it. A senior member of the group instantly rose and followed me. He asked, in a whisper, where I was going. I feigned illness – I was dizzy I said, nauseated. He nodded and, to my dismay, led me upstairs to another room, where he spread cushions on the floor for me to lie on. He stood over me until I settled in. I pretended to fall asleep. Then he left, leaving the door cracked an inch. I waited there in the silence, my heart pounding, until I felt brave enough to creep down the stairs and crawl to the entryway. I paused there, on my knees, the front door in my sights. Would they have dared to lock us in?

Apparently they were more confident in us than that, though. Miraculously, the knob turned. I rose and quietly tiptoed out, breaking into a run on the way to my car. I had to get there before my minder noticed I was gone. As I slammed the car door and started the ignition, tears came to my eyes. I was done. If my boyfriend wanted that life, he could marry that girl for all I cared. I was out of there. I was free.

When Ann returned to the dorm that night, I had a speech all ready for her. I wouldn’t lose her to the cult. I’d save her. But before I got out the first word, she confessed she’d been ready to run too. We both knew the experiment had gone way too far. We decided we’d had a close call and we were grateful and we would never, ever speak of it again. Pinky swear.

And then we did what any intelligent, sophisticated young ladies would do to celebrate their liberation. We ran across campus in the new-fallen snow, dashing the Sculpey figurines, one by one, against the brick walls of the student center.’

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