Cults, Teal Swan, and the importance of connection

The first rule of escaping and surviving a cult is knowing that anyone, anywhere, at any time, can be manipulated into joining a cult. How deep you go certainly depends on the person, but the mistake so many people make is assuming they are smart enough, healthy enough or confident enough to avoid falling in with a cult.

After listening to a 3.5 hour interview on Mormon Stories with Diana, a childhood friend of Teal’s as well as watching the new Hulu documentary, the Deep End, combined with some skimming on R/Cults I’ve found a lot of Teal’s work to be haunting and deeply emotionally unsettling.

No amount of editing in the Deep End, the new Hulu series, could be misconstrued when Teal exclaimed to a follower that she does not need a mentor. That there is no one “above” her. She relates herself to the Dalai Lama, the Pope and Jesus as a spiritual authority figurehead.

Along with the many signs of narcissism embedded deep within her following and cult-like controlling behaviors, Teal’s belief that she is the top of the spiritual pyramid stood out to me. Teal has created an industry in which she is the pinnacle of reactive justice, of aggressive manipulation and trauma doping. She believes in control through emotional manipulation, something she does with ease by sharing sensitive and triggering memories with little to no emotional reaction. No one is more traumatized than her, and she relishes the reactions given to her stories by followers and audience members alike.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

the importance of connection

Another rule of surviving and escaping a cult is knowing the importance of connections. In cults, it is easy to be pulled into a bubble. All your friends are inside the bubble, your teachers, your relationships, your children. And anyone outside the bubble has little to no contact with you. The bubble demands you cut off those close relationships, or witness to those outside this realm of protection because they’re lost with no hope of escape. The bubble is a tactic of control, one created to isolate and belittle its members into thinking they are alone in the world aside from this family (cult) of people.

Teal’s revelation that she has no teacher, no mentors, no one she learns from solidified in my mind her intense need to control her followers. To think there is no one on earth capable of relating to a thought or idea one might have, and that not one single person may have a thought or idea Teal has never conceived of before is implausible, yet still a reality that Teal immerses herself in, as is evident in the documentary.

As a creative person who enjoys writing and painting and general storytelling, I get no great satisfaction from sharing traumatic or upsetting stories with friends or mentors. Sometimes these details are necessary for context, but I shed my skin of martyrdom testimony when I left the pentecostal christian faith. I’ve become skeptical of attention seeking behaviors, looking for signs of fear mongering and trauma porn rubbernecking.

Photo by Agustin Fernandez on Unsplash

Mentorship and the magic of learning

And beyond this, I have many mentors and teachers from whom I learn. Each week, each month, and each year, I have learned and gained insight and changed my opinions. This is a cult survival tactic that is perhaps the most crucial to survival outside the bubble. The willingness and ability to change upon receiving new information. Cult members often struggle to adapt when their rulebook and spiritual leaders have been removed from the positions of power in their lives. We’ve seen the struggle in ex-fundamentalist mormon stories, and in devout hyperactive christian fanatics when the fanfare and dramatics are pulled aside, leaving individuals to face the reality of their small and narrow-minded worldview.

Real connection with others supersedes the bubble, because when we have a community of people with different sets of beliefs and different life experiences from our own, we can begin to change and understand our position in the world as is relative to this new information we are taking in.

Cult leaders relish control

In watching how Teal Swan dresses herself, in how she reacts to those who challenge her authority and even her consent in the filming of a deeply intimate documentary, there is no doubt in my mind that her perceived isolation and solitary life experience is a craft of her own making. It is easier to complain about the shit on the walls when it is in fact shit you have smeared there of your own volition, to garner sympathy and attention from visitors. It is an attempt for pity, and hyper empathy and compassion from followers that drives people to control and belittle the minds of others around them.

The perception that Teal is a golden egg by which she must be protected and guarded at all costs by her close inner sanctuary guards is, of course, hyperbole for a deeply insecure and illogical individual who believes there is no greater authority within humankind besides her own. That is how you become the victim of a cult, and why it is so fucking difficult to extrude yourself from its clutches once the talons of deception are sunk so far in. To believe there is only one answer, one right answer to healing, to restoration, to salvation, this is what keeps so many people behind the translucent walls of an impenetrable bubble.

If you or someone you know is looking for help, there is always help ready and available.

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information links

Link to Mormon Stories podcast interview here

Link to Teal swan documentary on Hulu, The Deep End, here

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Liz Brinks

Liz Brinks

Hey, I’m Liz Brinks (they/them) I’m a queer gender-non-conforming writer, business coach & cat-parent (@itsjuustliz everywhere) based out of Wisconsin!