Most people’s instant response when they hear a cult story is “That would never happen to me!”… and there is a common judgment that only people who are insecure, weak or foolish would find themselves involved in a cult.

It’s human nature to think that these things won’t happen to us, until they do.

I, too, would have said, “That would never happen to me”… But it did!

It’s taken me years to fully understand and process what happened in my life, and why it happened. Just recently, I have had some more pieces of my own journey fall into place whilst watching a new TV docu-series, The Vow.

The Vow covers real life experiences of several people who got involved with the cult, NXIVM. With great courage and power they share their stories of what it was really like, how they awakened to what was actually going on and how they removed themselves.

Mark Vicente, director of “What the bleep do we know?!” and one of The Vow’s subjects, says “Nobody joins a cult.” What really happens, is that they are drawn there for the personal development work and The Vow has done a great job of portraying how the journey progresses from personal development into cult conditioning.

Many of the people who become involved with cults do so because they genuinely believe in the capacity of the organisation/founder’s capacity to make a difference in the world, and they want to be part of that.

It is very common for cult leaders to seek out followers who are high achievers, who have specific strengths or skill sets, or people who connect easily with others (for recruitment).  However, even those with great outward strengths, can still experience internal fragility. Our humanness makes us all vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

It is easy to think that being part of a cult would be all bad and ugly, but of course, no one would stay if that were the case. The teachings and ideas that are presented contain significant and often unspoken truths for followers to resonate with. This is a deliberate act by the leader, they are creating a layered experience so that manipulation and coercion can be easily hidden.

Moments of intense transformation, bliss, beauty and connection are what keep people hooked in to the experience.

Many of the people involved acknowledge that the red flags were there in the beginning, but they overlooked them due to the incredible value they felt they were receiving.

One of the stand out elements is that being involved with NXIVM provided a real sense of belonging.

Belonging is powerful… and is what often drives us in life. For example, many people relate to staying in unhealthy situations because of a desire to belong – whether it is a peer group, a work environment, an unhealthy relationship or a community space.

Our human need for belonging is incredibly strong! And early in my life this need certainly led me to make some decisions that I would not choose now.

Why is belonging so important?

In today’s world, individuality is more highly valued than ever before… the ripple effect of this has meant that we have lost some of our sense of tribe and community. The nuclear family (parents and children family unit) means that we grow up with less involvement of extended family and less variety of influence in our daily lives. The level of busy-ness, distraction and isolation in life, means that many of us feel a longing for higher levels of connection and interaction than what is ordinarily available.

On top of this – there is an over-emphasis on achievement, direction and “going somewhere” in life. The value of knowing yourself deeply and developing grounded internal qualities and values is grossly disregarded. And so we are conditioned to seek fulfillment outside of ourselves.

The deepest longing that humans have is to be at one with our inner being, other people and the world around us, to experience a kind of fulfilment that comes through embodied experiences. This kind of peak experience is sometimes glimpsed momentarily through drugs, s*x, plant medicines, personal breakthroughs, significant life transitions or religious ceremonies.

And so, because many of us are disconnected from being present to our inner world - the desire to know oneself, to belong, and the absence of that experience makes us very vulnerable to cult influence.

It’s often at a time of life transition, or a high desire for change that one will start to believe that the programs or offerings available within the cult could be the solution that they are looking for.

I know, because I have been that person. I have experienced being emotionally and sexually manipulated and controlled.

I have always been intelligent, independent, strong-willed, determined, focused – and yet, it happened to me.

In my early 30’s, I was introduced to a (so-called) spiritual teacher – let’s call him Jim – who, at the time, felt like the missing link I had been searching for. He used teachings of sacred sexuality and orgasmic energy to manipulate and control many women, and I was one of them.

Luckily, I had physical distance on my side, I didn’t live near Jim or the other women who were part of his following. However, I spent hours every week on the phone with him, where he would install his ideas of how I should live, and how other women should live, in my mind. He used a form of hypnosis whilst I was in an altered orgasmic state.

Recently, I’ve become ever more grateful for the lack of structure and organisation in the group I was in. Through watching The Vow, I’ve seen how much more difficult it is when there is a significantly large group who are all indoctrinated in the teachings.

In the latest episode of The Vow, I watched singer and actress, Bonnie Piesse, struggle with her internal dialogue being in conflict with what was happening in the group. As she spoke aloud her thoughts to the cult leader, he was manipulating her, encouraging her to doubt herself, and to lean more fully into the cult space.

I remember how that felt, I remember my own moments of questioning and thinking that something was not right. The confusion that flooded my body. The swirling and not being able to get my thoughts straight because they were in direct conflict to what I was being told by the man who my world revolved around, and also the women who had become my closest confidantes.

Were there red flags? Yes! And I ignored them. I ignored them because I was so looking for a place to belong, to grow and to explore myself more fully as a s*xual woman. I ignored them because this man proposed a utopian picture, a promise of creating a beautiful community where men and women could be open and loving and fully expressed… and this dream spoke so deeply to my vulnerable heart.

I was being brainwashed, programmed to doubt myself, manipulated into discarding my own thoughts and feelings and to hold only his word as important and valid.

It was excruciating. Torn between my deep need for belonging and my internal compass telling me something wasn’t right!

There are many reasons why I fell prey to the cult experience - My sense of longing was so intense. I wanted to make a difference in the world, to feel connected to a cause and community bigger than me. At that point in my life, I was hungry for change, a blank canvas… sadly, my commitment to growth and expansion made me an ideal target for Jim’s power play.

The dynamic of his power play was to inspire commitment, he would manipulate in such a way that women would absolutely devote themselves to him. In hindsight, I know that part of my high achieving nature (that made me ripe for recruitment) was an effort to hide my feelings of insecurity and inferiority.

My vulnerability was amplified by the uncomfortable feelings I had buried inside. I had held too much responsibility in my childhood and craved a feeling of being looked after… and because of his compelling presence and influence, I thought that Jim could be the one to finally take care of me.

All of this contributed to why I handed him my power, I wanted to let go and it felt like he was somehow saving me. It’s clear to me now that what I really needed was to address my unresolved pain and grief and cultivate the feelings of being looked after and taken care of within myself.

I cannot describe for you the times when I saw him create an experience – in me and in others – that was truly expansive and that felt life altering. The times when he touched a woman’s body and she opened so deeply that she cried and everyone nearby had tears in their eyes.

Whilst Jim’s overarching intentions were undeniably wrong, there were indescribable moments of love, beauty and openness. And this is what kept me, and so many others, committed to him.

I wanted everyone to experience the kind of opening that I had felt and witnessed. What I didn’t know was that he was using those moments of opening for his own power, and to manipulate the women into following his demands.

The exploitation of orgasmic states and energy was one of the tools he used to control his followers. In orgasm, we are expanded, open and receptive… which means I was open to receiving directions, and that my body was programmed at the deepest level to do what he told me. This led me to recruiting other women, which is the part I have found most challenging to forgive myself for.

How could I have gotten others involved in that situation? Quite simply, because I had been programmed to do just that - because I believed that we were creating a better world, because I let my own doubts be replaced by his voice.

I am deeply sorry to any and all people that I introduced to Jim. I have had to journey very deeply into the shame of being a “recruiter” and it has taken many years to forgive myself for all the introductions I made to this man, and for the ways I manipulated women’s doubts to encourage their loyalty to him.

Part of his gift was being able to read people, figuring out what makes them tick and using that to his advantage. He knew my gifts and my strengths and supported me to shine, but he also knew my weaknesses.  At times when my devotion wavered, he would play the abandonment card and say “You are just going to leave me, like everyone else.” – he knew being abandoned was my deepest fear, and so he used this to manipulate me and keep me loyal to him.

After some time involved with him and his following, my desire for an intimate relationship, something of my own, began to surface. I wanted to be with somebody who I could create a regular life with, to share daily experiences with, and to have some sense of normality. Any time I started dating a man, Jim would point out their faults and flaws, to seed doubt in my mind.

Desiring a life partner was in direct conflict with many of the ideas Jim had installed in me. For months, I struggled to find clarity on what was right for me and felt wrong for wanting a relationship.  Jim had told me so many times that no man would ever be able to offer me what he could. I was stuck, afraid to stay, and afraid to go!

Ultimately, it was my longing for more that drew me to Jim, and it was my longing for more that caused me to leave. I reached a turning point when I realized I could no longer hear my own voice when I went inside myself. There was no Martina’s voice anymore. My internal dialogue had been replaced by his voice, it all sounded like him. I didn’t know who I was anymore and that was terrifying. This is when I made the decision to leave.

I know all of this has greatly shaped my life journey… and the moment I chose to leave is when my true journey of empowerment began.

There is much more I could say and in the fullness of time, I will share more.

It is now, more than ever, absolutely clear to me that for all women and men to know and live truly and wholeheartedly empowered, is my deepest and most passionate desire.