I’ve been riveted watching Leah Remini’s series, Scientology and the Aftermath. The last episode is airing in a few days. She has been introducing former members to tell their stories of what the Church of Scientology (CoS) did to them, why they left, and what was done to them after that. Since I follow one of the world’s oldest religions, why did this series hit me so hard? Here’s some of my personal story about how I and my son were abused using tactics like those of a cult by a psychology professional. Despite my two top Ivy League degrees and years in business, it happened to me. I no longer trust people to be who they are supposed to be or to treat us ethically. How could I let it happen? We were extremely vulnerable, so I don’t believe it was my “fault,” but it happened “on my watch” nonetheless.
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A couple of years after the United Way’s 9-11 widows support group ended, I called the former group leader and asked her to suggest a name to see about a relationship problem I was having. She offered herself. I spent the next 7 years seeing her 50+ weeks a year, increasingly emotionally and financially abused by her. I’m trying to let go now of my greatest regret in life: that my son was involved with her for several years also. The shocking tactics, and parallels between what we experienced and the issues in the cable documentary series, are still hard for me to talk about.
THIS IS US
We were increasingly isolated and extremely vulnerable for many years after September 11, 2001. When my husband was killed, my father had just died, my mother was developing dementia, our four-year old son was severely developmentally disabled, and my connections to the working world had ended in 2000. I had “retired” to care for our son. My son and I still saw some family members periodically, but they were not in our home or neighborhood. My son had some serious negative behaviors and could not communicate with people functionally. His behaviors meant that we had limited places to go, and it was difficult to attend even family events. In 2002, a friend had introduced me to a man who became my boyfriend, but I went to the therapist because I expected to dump him. I did, and we lost contact with him and his family.
WHO IS SHE?
She had been the professional watching our United Way 9-11 widows support group. Let’s call her “Doctor Susie” because my legal settlement prohibits me from using her name while disparaging her. The therapist knew all this about us, plus our financial status, from the 9-11 support group sessions, but I knew almost nothing about her. She claimed a heroic mantel. She had treated First Responders and others at Ground Zero for psychological issues, heroically refusing to wear a mask and exposing herself to the toxic fumes. She said her health was going downhill, which it was, and maybe it was because of such exposure. She claimed to have witnessed the WTC’s sole survivor emerging from underground in the first day and to have consulted about the movie production. Maybe some or all of it was true. Now I can see she spent years lying to me. Even if true, she was not a First Responder. As a conniving sociopath, she may have cultivated hero status for professional reasons.
DEAD OR ALIVE
Note that I have been using the past tense. That is because she died while I was suing her. She already had her license in Clinical Psychology revoked upon my complaint. At her deposition in front of the professional review board, she claimed everything in my complaint was untrue, that I was insane. But she could not deny her billing records, that she had me paying for as many as 6 or 7 other people to go to her for ‘training,’ and that basically the only people in her practice towards the end were people I paid for and myself, and my sessions ran for hours.
CHURCH OF ONE
At least one expert told me that I was a “Church of One,” and that church felt like what the cable series describes. The Church of Scientology is often abbreviated as CoS. It is a religion, but I like the abbreviation because it doesn’t presume to call it a church. (The CoS mimics some of the formats of psychology while hating psychology and psychiatry as its stated enemies.)
A primary technique in CoS is “auditing,” which is analogous to the later years of my “therapy” sessions. One of Doctor Susie’s tactics was that if my son had a behavioral problem, I must have done something to cause it.
During the course of several years of “therapy,” she developed the claim that my son was developmentally disabled because I was “sending him negative energy.” (The energetic concepts remind me of some precepts of the CoS.) The threat she dangled from time to time was that I would lose legal access to my son permanently and be shunned by him, if I stopped coming to sessions or didn’t follow her. (This type of threat is similar to the CoS and “separation,” which is what happens within the families of people who leave the CoS.)
Over the course of years, Doctor Susie incrementally worked her way into my household through the people she had me hire to work with my son, and used them to separate us. She claimed he would do better spending time with anyone other than me, that her “training” of these people made them uniquely qualified to take my place. One of these people was another of her other patients who was at that time out of work. Another was a nanny who had mostly been home-schooled and had never lived away from home or had a full time job before. A third was the nanny’s mother. A fourth was a young man whose father she knew and whom she claimed had a disability himself. She used these people and anyone else I paid to be with my son to “gaslight” me.
They would report on what happened in the house, such as finding the fridge open overnight. (The CoS expects anyone snitch on doubters in a Knowledge Report – nannies, spouses, parents, children, siblings.) In sessions, she would claim that I had left the fridge open to harm my son and hamper his caregivers. She said I was trying to poison him. In reality, he was waking in the night, going downstairs, opening the fridge, and leaving it open. He still does sometimes, even during the day. Boys! What can you do?
I may expand on her tactics in another post. However, I fear that even these details might inspire another psychopath, or be enough of a roadmap for someone else to brainwash people.
I believe she learned of cult tactics while she was getting her doctorate. The psychiatric expert witness for my lawsuit reported on her cult-like tactics with us. He told me that many psychology “cults” had been exposed during the years in which she was attending school, such as abusive and expensive “treatment centers” run by a psychologist in which parents would leave their children and attend therapy groups themselves. She would also have studied lots of abnormal psychology for the class she taught on abnormal psychology, as an adjunct professor. She would have read about cult leaders and practices.
No doubt, she had realized that she was herself a sociopath. The Diagnostic Manual for Psychiatry now has a more expansive definition of psychopaths that includes what we laymen still think of as sociopaths: non-violent people completely lacking in empathy and sympathy for others, who might experience remorse related to personal consequences of misdeeds, but not experiencing remorse as we generally understand it.
As long as Doctor Susie had rules and ties tethering her to the world of moral values, she acted less like a sociopath. She appeared rather like the 90% of us who can feel sympathy for others. She may have adhered to most ethical norms and rules during her career. But she told me that she had became jealous when our family got a pay out from the Victims Compensation Fund. She was probably also jealous that I had a social life and a beautiful, if neurologically-impaired, son, and a large extended family.
Her life and social spheres were shrinking due to her illness, which at some point was declared to be terminal. She was taking over my life while she was increasingly stuck in her own house. She told me nothing about her health for months, maybe years. I was not allowed to ask questions. In retrospect, she hid the severity of her illness by blaming my evil intent as the reason that I could no longer look at her, even while entering her house. Bringing me down – me, the double-Ivied loving mother – was probably a fun game for her when few pleasures were left.
I wasn’t allowed to ask questions, but from time to time in the last year and a half, I would wonder aloud how the situation would end. At some point she may have realized she would probably die before any legal consequences could come to her. Her form of cancer may have been an extremely painful one. That pain is the one thing that may mitigate her guilt, but she was not in such pain for most of my time in her care. In her terminal throes of pain, of which I was unaware until later, she was dealing with the professional board and my lawsuit. She may have realized that we were likely to be grow back into living a full and increasingly happy life.
It has been quite a few years since I found a way to fire her. We do live a full life now. It doesn’t have everything anyone could ever want because that is impossible. But we do almost all the things that everyone else does, and we enjoy life ourselves and with each other. I have found a new profession working with people with language disorders. Now no one can ever claim to know more professionally about my son’s developmental disabilities than I do. I’m thankful we survived, that she did not leave us destitute, and that we are doing well.