This was my first ever interview! Yet I somehow still draw on things that Helen said to me to this day:
I put a post on reddit asking for recommendations on cults that people would like me to cover, and Helen commented on the post telling me she had just left a cult and written a book about her time and that I should read it. I decided to ask her to come on the show and talk about it and she agreed!
If I were to describe my feelings in one word, it would be INTIMIDATED. I had recorded 4 other episodes by this time and all of them were deep dives, whereas Helen was a published author who had lived through experiences very similar to what I was reading and talking about.
Of course, I read and loved her book before we spoke. I have always made a point to read anyone’s work of upcoming guests, as a pet peeve is listening to interviews where the host seems to know nothing about the content.
There were so many parts of this conversation that have stuck with me over the past 3 years. This was the point where I realised that this space is enormous and how I had only just dipped my toe in.
If you are reading these blogs while listening to the remastered episodes, or reading as you listen for the first time, then take note of some of the key things mentioned by Helen and you can play “Cult Bingo” as we go on through the backlog of interviews. We’ll look for:
Levels or hierarchy: Helen talks about when she first joined, and later there were wristbands introduced depicting hierarchical standings and varying favour with the leader.
Labour trafficking: Helen talks about how they would go out onto street corners and try to sell things to make money for “the group” which inevitably meant that the money was given to the leader.
Control of sexual activity: In Helen's case there were strict rules about who you could sleep with and how it should be done and relationships were not allowed.
The list goes on and when I was hearing these for the first time, I remember being so shocked and wondering how someone could get sucked into something like this. I’d like to point out that Helen is a Harvard graduate – this also set any thoughts that “only an idiot would join a cult” aside at a very early stage and I began to realise that ANYONE was a potential target for cult recruitment.
One of the most memorable parts for me is when I said that Helen had joined a “Sex Cult” and she was quick to correct me that it was not a “Sex Cult”, but a CULT with a radical take on sex and relationships. In my memory this was a moment of shame and I remember thinking I’d really upset Helen, but on listening back it was simply Helen setting straight a sensationalist term that is only typically used in the media.
Creating a term like “Sex Cult” splits an already small and marginalised group of cult survivors into even more isolated groups and also creates a kind of mental hierarchy of “Cult Severity”
“Oh you were in a cult? Well I was in a SEX Cult and that’s worse”
Clearly no one would say something like this, but these kinds of terms can create this type of thinking.
Also, this type of language is reductionist and takes away from the other aspects like financial coercion, emotional manipulation and so on.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself, and I’d be lying if I said these were things I realised instantly.
Let’s stick with Helen and grow this knowledge organically.
Looking back at my interview style for this one, similarly to last weeks I would say that this was more conversational and not very well structured. Contrary to last week though, I DO feel like this took away from the interview a little bit. On re-listening I found myself wanting to dig deeper into certain aspects that I had just brushed past or left open while switching to a different subject. I have found through the years that asking questions in a more chronological order can sometimes tease out memories and stories which don’t come out if we are jumping backwards and forwards.
Overall, I am happy looking back. Helen was such a great guest and re-listening was a pleasure!
I also have to say that the difference in audio from the original to this episode is night-and-day. I am really excited for all of my episodes to be this clear and I will definitely be even prouder of my body of work once it all sounds as good as this.
I reached out to Helen for an update and she had this to say:
I've published a second book, What Is a Sex Cult? How Cults Reveal Our Culture. Learn more here: https://helenzuman.com/books/what-is-a-sex-cult/.
I'm about to launch, on Substack, a paid newsletter called Everything Is Compostable. I spent years composting my Zendik experience; currently, I'm focusing on composting my relationship with Lyndon McLeod, a fellow ex-Zendik who killed 5 people, and was shot to death by a police officer, on December 27, 2021. Sign up here: https://helenzuman.substack.com/.
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