Last night, I went to see Martha Marcy May Marlene, the new movie about a woman who runs away from a destructive cult. Writer/director Sean Durkin has clearly done his homework. His film gets so much so right. It provides such a clear window into a lot of the psychological themes of cult indoctrination—deceptive recruitment, incremental cognitive-behavioral techniques to inculcate the new cult identity—it was almost painful to watch. At the same time, the film does not go far enough—the behaviors are portrayed but not explained or ever resolved by Martha. As a former cult member myself, I worry that some former cult members who see Martha Marcy May Marlene may actually be freaked by the experience.
Walking out of the theater, I tried to imagine what an average person would get out of the film. I approached a group of people and asked them what they thought: “upsetting” and “unsettling,” they told me. They were not pleased with the ending, which leaves a big question mark: will Martha get psychological help or be sucked back, or worse hunted down and killed by the cult? It was clear to me as we talked that the movie had given them no real understanding of dissociation—the experience of being caught between two identities and worlds, with no strong anchor of what is real. They had no understanding of triggers—the cues (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, olfactory or gustatory) that can immediately access the cult identity. The film goes back and forth throughout, emphasizing the mind of someone who has physically escaped from a cult, but doesn’t understand what has happened to her. Someone who is so traumatized that she has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) behaviors.
As I took the trolley home from downtown Boston, I began thinking that the movie could make a really good teaching tool. On the one hand, it touches on many elements of cult reality—seductive recruitment (by a cute guy of course); using current cult members to groom and indoctrinate new recruits; incremental indoctrination—feeding new recruits spoonfuls of the new ‘reality’ so they don’t immediately run away; a wearing down of personal boundaries as what you wear, eat and where you sleep are all systematically altered. The film even depicts a ‘cleansing,’ in this case through a crushed drug stirred into a drink given to the naive initiate before she has sex with (is raped by) the cult leader. The experience is then redefined as ‘good, important, and beautiful,’ even though it is clear that Martha is traumatized and in psychic shock.
Cultspeak or ’loaded language’ is laid on thickly: platitudinous phrases are used to stifle complex thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and to create conformity and dependency. The group seems to be modeled loosely on the Charles Manson cult so we see a house break-in and the murder of a surprised homeowner. The redefining of death as ‘no-big deal’ and even a ‘beautiful thing’ serves to not only help our central character to run away but to make her completely afraid of the cult coming after her and killing her too.
All this is so true to the reality of cult involvement that I worry. I worry that former cult members, particularly women who have not had extensive counseling, will get triggered. If they really want to see it, I suggest they think about waiting until it comes out on DVD. Watch it on a small screen with a remote control to pause, skip, or stop altogether. I also warn those who have a loved one in a mind control cult to be cautious. Seeing this movie may help you understand the reality of your loved one’s new life but, without some explanation of the psychological mechanisms, you might actually follow a wrong course of action. Certainly, the actions taken by Martha’s sister and brother-in-law (who she lives with after she escapes) are not exemplary: they have no real understanding of how to help. At the end, they are on the way to take Martha to see a counselor, but even that had me worried: most mental health professionals know very little if anything about mind control, even less how to help people heal from it and can cause further damage with the best of intentions.
Having said all this, I do think that I might try using it in my counseling with family members and friends to see f they find it helpful. My hope is that it will help them step into the mind of a “walk-out” and give them a window into that world. I’d also like to use it to help train mental health professionals as it is a potential gold mine to engage practitioners in viewing this as a case study and a jumping off point to discuss how to help do truly healing therapy with such an individual.
Hopefully watching this movie will help alert the general public to the reality and dangers of cult mind control. It might even alert a person currently involved with a less than healthy situation to take time out, research more fully and reevaluate. If so, Martha Marcy May Marlene might even help save a life.