“I was in a cult.”
“What the f- can I write an article about it?”
That’s an actual conversation I had with my friend, Este. I think I speak for most of us when I say that I had no idea cults existed in sunny ol’ Singapore. But, oh do they exist, and Este’s got tea to spill.
The cult she and her mom joined was nothing like the Kool-Aid à la cyanide chuggers from Jonestown or the serial-killing Mansons – but it still left her scarred for life. I mean, it’s not every day that a forest-dwelling guru tells you to chew glass and invest a third of your uni tuition in soul-sucking magic mirrors, right?
For Este and her mum, that was the norm for 4 years. Here’s her story:
When I was 8 years old, my parents divorced and my mum became a single mother. She had to work multiple jobs in order to tide us through the first couple of years, and I didn’t get to see her as much. However, she still managed to be attentive and strong, wanting to make up for lost time and build more memories with me.
We were finally able to do all that when I was in secondary school as her income grew steadier and she could afford to leave some of her side hustles. It was just the 2 of us in our 2-room flat then, cuddling up for movie nights and going out for dinner dates.
Image credit: Este
I cherished those moments dearly and wished they would last forever – but of course, if you’re reading this, they didn’t.
It all started when my mum’s friend introduced her to a guru from overseas. Apparently, he had prayed in a forest for 20 years straight, mastered the art of meditation, and developed a combination of breathwork and chants that could grant wishes.
He almost sounded like a genie – except genies don’t ask you to fork out a sum of money for every wish granted. My mum’s friend explained that there were different levels of “opening one’s chakras” – where spiritual energy was stored – and each required a fresh wad of cash.
The icing on the cake? There was also a convention that cost $700 to get in. It was slated to be in Singapore, where members from around the globe could gather to meet the guru. It was also a sort of “initiation” that prospective members had to attend – and pay for.
While it all sounded a little sus to me, my mum was excited. Perhaps it was because she longed for a sense of community and connection, after having raised me single-handedly for so long. I remember her telling me confidently, “Just pay $700, if it works it works, if it doesn’t it’s okay,” even inviting me to join her.
I was sceptical – but at the same time, I wanted to look out for her. So, I reluctantly agreed and she paid a total of $1,400 for both of us.
Little did I know that was the beginning of the end.
When we arrived at the convention, there were thousands of people from all walks of life, speaking in all sorts of languages. The atmosphere was hectic and giddy, and many were either engaged in small talk or raving about the guru’s methods.
Then, the man of the hour appeared.
His flock erupted in ecstasy and clapped and cheered for a good 15 minutes. The guru was a lanky man in his 60s, in a flowy, white top. He began by preaching about the benefits of opening chakras and how we could use them to get closer to our “higher self”. There were also various interpreters on-site, translating his every word into earpieces that most of the audience wore.
Think Wild Wild Country. The documentary revolves around the mystic known as “Osho” – whom many believed to be a cult leader – and his group of followers.
Image credit: Netflix
Image for illustrative purposes only.
Everyone was eager and attentive, scribbling down notes and nodding their heads fervently. Towards the end, the guru was even kind enough to lay a chant over the entire assembly – something about granting us mere mortals the power to perform miracles.
Finally, he asked for volunteers to come up on stage to chew glass.
Chew. Actual. Glass.
I sat absolutely stupefied as I watched 2 men walk up on stage to take part in the guru’s little taste test.
1 out of the 2 volunteers chickened out before he could even nibble the glass shard, but the other pressed on and chomped down the whole thing. And lo and behold, after he casually swallowed it, there wasn’t a single drop of blood in his mouth.
Whether it was truly the omnipotence of the almighty chakra or just a cheap gimmick, mummy dearest was sold. Shortly after the convention, she became pretty pious and went on to cut out meat from her diet and meditate daily for hours on end.
That meant no more cooking her favourite lu rou fan and bak kut teh, and no more movie nights – since most evenings were spent memorising all 9765298 chants she was told to. Throughout the day, she also had to pray to the guru as much as possible so that his superpowers could “transfer” to her.
Also, contrary to what she said about spending the $1,400 for curiosity’s sake, my mum ended up guilt-tripping me into doing the meditations to make our money’s worth.
Tbh, the meditations did help in calming my mind and improving my focus – but the things I was told to wish for never came true. For example, my grades were pretty much stagnant and my love life was as unhappening as could be.
However, the “leaders” – basically the guru’s underlings – were extremely strict, even ensuring we were active in the WhatsApp group chats they had created for daily check-ins. Every morning and evening without fail, members would have to update the group on whether they had meditated, and for how long.
My mum represented both of us in the chat so my phone wasn’t blowing up every other day. With the excessive amounts of chants and meditations, I was enlightened in a different way – it became clear that we were being brainwashed into believing things that simply weren’t true.
My mum, however, was knee-deep in their indoctrination. She even bought me a “good luck” amulet for my birthday, wholeheartedly believing that it would solve all my life’s problems. I can assure you it didn’t.
Soon, her faith grew too big for chants and charms. That’s when she decided to bust out the big guns and buy a “magical” $10,000 mirror.
She reasoned that the guru had personally promised her that as long as she meditated in front of it, her soul would be on a fast track to enlightenment. Even weirder was the fact that nobody else could use her mirror, or it would trap their souls in its “mirror dimension”.
What resulted was an awkward living situation where I had to stay in my room for hours while my mum meditated in the hall. She would even get angry if I so much as came out to get a cup of water. Given the compactness of our 2-room flat, it felt extremely claustrophobic to be cooped up in a tiny bedroom.
When I shared this with my friends in school, they were all pretty appalled and advised me to GTFO as soon as possible.
The mirror soon became the bane of my existence and also the turning point of my relationship with my mum. At this point, I was 100% sure we had joined a cult, and 1,000% ready to jump ship.
So, I broke the news to my mum and called it quits.
Unlike what most of us may know about cults, it personally wasn’t hard to leave at all. I wasn’t part of any of their group chats, which meant that my presence was already unaccounted for. My mum, however, was livid.
Surprisingly, it was more so because of the money she had spent on me, than my lack of faith. I, on the other hand, was upset that she was wide-eyed enough to keep her wallet wide open for the cult’s dubious demands.
After I left, she tried to rope in some of her friends, but most of them shunned her. The leaders also kept probing her on why she wasn’t as active in their daily group chats, which made her feel insecure and untrustworthy.
“Aiya you don’t understand, you left already,” became her default response whenever I expressed my concern. We still tried to hang out, but it became hard to have HTHTs with such a big elephant in the room; deep, honest conversations inevitably led back to a quarrel over faith.
But as the years inched by, I could tell that she was getting tired of meditating day and night, only to confront yet another day of unanswered prayers. She grew annoyed at the leaders’ constant nagging, and how they would tell her that their efforts would’ve been wasted if she stopped.
It took about 4 years for my mum to finally leave the cult. I guess her frustration finally opened her eyes to the deception she was embroiled in, like spending so much money only to get zero results. Needless to say, I was on top of the world and we celebrated by going to an all-you-can-eat meat buffet. A revenge meal, if you will.
The leaders had begged her to stay, but she was too jaded to entertain their pleas. Our mother-daughter relationship also improved, but it took me a long time to realise that it wasn’t just because she left the cult.
The crux of all our conflict had always been poor communication. In hindsight, our heated moments and harsh exchanges came from a place of love – we were only worried that the other might change into a different person.
A whole lot of patience and trust goes a long way in helping cult converts see reality from a different angle. After all, many people who join a cult can’t recognise that they’re in one.
It’s like that line from Bojack Horseman: Red flags just look like flags when you’re looking at things through rose-coloured glasses.
Image credit: Van Bui
Leaving a destructive group is one foot in the door, but recovering from it is a whole new journey. My mum lost her self-esteem after she was repeatedly told that her success depended on her measure of faith, which was a test she just couldn’t pass.
Now that this nightmare is long behind Este and her mum, they laugh about it now and then. “We decided that the only time we’d ever pay for a membership again would be at a gym.” she laughed.
If you – or a loved one – suspect you’re in a cult, be wary of excessive practices, charismatic leaders who dispense false promises, and unjustifiable membership fees.
Feelings of shame and guilt will also be used to influence members and are often evoked through dictatorial leadership and peer pressure. Dismantling their iron belief system and restoring their mental health will require time and support, and perhaps a visit to a professional counsellor to talk about their experience with no judgement. After all, faith shouldn’t affect family.
And as for the mirror, it still lives under a cloth in their storeroom, because no karang guni would believe it cost $10,000. “Magic or not, it gives me the creeps – but I’m just glad to have my mum back.”
Well damn, Este.
Check out other interesting perspectives:
Cover image adapted from: Este, Pexels
Illustrations: Ra Krishnan
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