Now that UnMinding is private, I feel safe to write this.
After a two-month wait, I finally got placed with a therapist. It’s only been 3 sessions, but she’s wonderful.
During our session last week, I mentioned my pattern of attracting narcissistic best friends. In particular, I mentioned Arachne, Selene and a certain radical feminist I will not name here (if you know me, though, you know who I’m talking about).
She asked me to give her a short list of characteristics they had in common. So I told her,
- They were all charismatic as fuck. Everything was urgent and exciting. They could even make you thrilled about watching paint dry, I swear to god.
- They seemed to view themselves as the arbiters of reality. Nothing was true or right until they confirmed it. They expected everyone around them to recognize this self-determined authority, and would humiliate — sometimes publicly — anyone who challenged that authority.
- They needed constant attention, compliments, gifts (“narcissistic supply”)
- They believed themselves to be multi-talented when, honestly, all their talents were pretty average. They weren’t great dancers, writers, photographers or singers, but presented themselves as masters of all trades. Their perception of their own talents was grossly overblown. (As a friend of mine put it: “They can’t be bad at anything.”)
- They often referred to themselves in the third-person, and when doing so, it was to boast about how amazing they were. (Literally a thing my cult leader would say all the time: “And I can do that, because, well, I’m Arachne.” Or that radfem: “Blowing minds: it’s what I do.” With no shame at all!)
So now we had this list of qualities: Charismatic. Authoritarian. Demanding. Self-aggrandizing. Boastful.
“We tend to attract the kinds of people who represent unresolved relationships from our developmental years. Think back,” my therapist said. “Was there anyone in your family who meets this description?”
Hmmmm. Going down the list: Not really my mom. Definitely not my dad. Not my brother, or my abusive cousin. Not any of my aunts, uncles, grandparents…
And then it hit me:
Charismatic, YES, authoritarian, YES, demanding, self-aggrandizing, boastful, YES YES YES! All of it!
My therapist nodded with a knowing smile. We had uncovered something crucial, something obvious, and yet, somehow, something terribly easy to overlook.
According to this great article, the difference between a church and a cultic church is all in how the church leader is perceived:
Is he respected or feared? Does he emphasize God’s authority or his own? Is he held accountable for his actions, or does he break rules as he pleases? Does he use his position of power to threaten, humiliate and abuse people? Does the congregation seem more interested in his guidance, or his approval? Does the congregation spend more time focusing on God, or focusing on the church leader?
You can guess the answers to all the questions above, regarding my own pastor.
Every sermon would begin reverently, and end up with him putting on quite a performance. He’d scream out in tongues, sweat trickling from his brow, his voice making us shrink in awe. He’d rock back and forth on his heels, robe swaying; he’d stomp, sending reverberations through the hall; he’d beat the podium with his fist. He’d march through the pews to glare at people who weren’t paying enough attention to him.
All of this was to remind us of the power he had, both physically and figuratively. With this terrifying choreography, he could easily whip the church into a frenzy, having them believe they were being filled with the Holy Spirit. People would fall on the floor, convulsing and screaming.
We’re talking about the kind of guy who would use the word “faggot” during his sermons, while making intense eye contact with anyone in the church he suspected of being homosexual. If he heard rumors that you were doubting God, he would call you up to the pulpit and have the church elders pray for you (read: pray at you and on you) in front of everyone. One time, he found out a girl in our church was sexually active, and he dedicated a good chunk of his sermon to shouting about how “girls with mosquito-bite breasts” have no business fooling around with boys.
Anyone who didn’t do what he wanted, was subject to public ridicule.
The congregation was constantly trying to appease him. One year, no lie, they pooled their money to buy him a Hummer. A HUMMER. My mother is a professional designer, and she has spent the past ten years decorating for church events for free. All that money for supplies comes out of her own pocket, and the church barely offers to help. Her reason? “Pastor and his family have always been there for us.” (No, they haven’t, actually.)
Oh, and let’s not forget how he used me for money for 13 fucking years.
He accepted extravagant gifts and sacrifices often, but rarely returned those favors, or even said “thank you.”
Talk about insecure! I don’t remember the drama that led to this, but one day something set him off (again), and he derailed his sermon to talk about how black men are “better lovers” than white men. There were kids in the room, by the way, not just counting myself.
On occasions when he was giving a special sermon, such as Christmas, he needed to be introduced with a special biography, in which he bragged about his extensive educational background and how he’d read the Bible cover-to-cover 25 times.
This was not a man of humility, and nothing about him modeled God’s alleged love or kindness. He was an egotist, he was self-absorbed, and he was downright mean.
Back to the Present.
I’m familiar with the idea that we “love-reincarnate” our past abusers, but while I was busy considering the ways in which my biological family harmed me, I must have grossly underestimated my Pastor’s lasting impact.
But of course, it makes sense! He was my godfather. He was literally there, in the hospital, on the day I was born — so, presumably, he was one of the first people to make physical contact with me.
My mother took me to church every week since birth. I was subjected to his screaming, charismatic voice every week; visually, he was always front and center on a tall podium over the congregation.
In so many ways, both overt and subtle, he was central, and above us; he was a focal point; he was the eye of our cultic circle; for 18 years, I was subtly programmed to center and exalt him in my mind, from Day 1.
You might be thinking, this was terribly obvious. He was your cult leader! How did you not see this until now?
Bear with me, please:
This entire time, I thought that I was attracting people who resembled the GOD that I was raised to believe in: the wrathful, domineering, abusive God of the Bible. I thought that, by attracting narcissists, I was replicating the domination/submission dynamic encouraged between God and His believers. (And I still don’t think I was entirely wrong about that theory.)
It was always obvious that I was afraid of God — and moreover, it’s socially acceptable to admit that you believe in a God who can watch and control you at all times (He is omnipresent/omniscient/omnipotent, after all).
On the other hand, it’s not socially acceptable to admit to feeling that way about another human being.
HOLY SHIT, THAT’S THE THING. (Excuse the caps lock, I need to scream this part!) I JUST REALIZED:
It took me this long to acknowledge how much fear I felt towards my Pastor, because I thought he was only a representative of God! No, HE WAS THE GOD! HE WAS MY FIRST GOD!
By exalting himself as God, while claiming to only be a representative of God, he conditioned us all to treat him like God, while thinking that it wasn’t him we were treating like God!
The subtlety! The deception!
And as a result of this trickery, I focused my post-cult healing on addressing my fear of God, and completely bypassed the fear of my Pastor… which I didn’t even realize I still have.
I’ll be processing this for a looooooooong time.