My Night Spent With a Cult
The experience I am going to talk about happened about a year ago. Up until that point, the closest I’d come to a cult was on a screen or in my psychology notes, but I’d never been inside one.
When I was studying for my psychology degree, we learned about people joining sects and the ways in which it affects them psychologically. I’m not going to talk about these consequences as my involvement with a cult only lasted a night. However, I’m going to speak about what I experienced.
In this short article, I’ll tell you how, while walking the Camino de Santiago in the Basque Country, Spain, with my twin sister, we ended up spending the night in a cult (I won’t say its name out of respect).
It all started on the Camino de Santiago
To explain how I ended up spending the night with a cult, I have to return to the beginning of my story. It was August of last year, and I was walking a section of the Camino de Santiago with Anna. More specifically, it was the Northern Way, which passes through the Basque Country. It was the third year that we’d done it and until then, our experiences had been more or less the same. We never reserved any hostels to stay in because it wasn’t possible as availability was on a first come first served basis.
However, we were still in the midst of post-covid and were sure we’d be able to find somewhere to stay. How surprised we were, therefore, to arrive in Donostia, and find that everything was booked. We spoke with the people in the nearest town and the other walkers, and they told us that there was a place, on the hill just before reaching Donostia, where they’d welcome us for the night.
That said, they warned us that if we wanted to stay there we’d need to keep open minds. We didn’t really understand their comment and wanted to know more. We were told that people from all over the world went there and that it was a kind of community where they lived by their own rules. They assured us that, while we might see certain things that surprised us, we’d be okay. We were still rather unsure but didn’t really have an option with there being no other place to spend the night.
When we arrived, they welcomed us extremely well. The house was in beautiful surroundings, full of plants and trees. It was a huge place, really tidy and well cared for. We introduced ourselves and noticed that there were some more pilgrims there, like us. There were about ten or twelve members, both men and women of different ages, ranging from around 20 to 50 years old.
The girl who welcomed us was around 20, and she was pregnant. She introduced us to her boyfriend, who was around the same age, and they explained that they met in the community and had both been born there. They told us that when a woman became pregnant, they didn’t go to a doctor for check-ups. In fact, it was normal to not know anything about the baby until it was born. They simply trusted their nature and rarely even went to the doctor when they were sick.
Our second surprise of the trip came when they told us that they’d had never been out of the community. There were also other details that captured our attention. When we asked them why they hadn’t left, or if they were curious to do so, they told us that their parents had told them that the world was full of problems and that they weren’t missing anything. Consequently, their curiosity or desire to get out of there had been eradicated. They’d simply been raised that way and had internalized their parents’ message.
No books, newspapers, or television
There were no books, newspapers, or TVs. In fact, one of the usual characteristics of a sect is the deprivation of freedom (albeit done in a ‘subtle’ way) as well as isolation from the world.
There were basic rules of coexistence, which meant that each member of the community had a role. The women cooked, sewed, and taught and cared for the children. The men did household, and maintenance tasks and tilled the fields, etc. As you can see, the tasks were distributed on a rather misogynistic basis. But, when we asked, they explained that each member had their own responsibilities and they were all able to contribute in their own way to the community.
The children didn’t go to school and all dressed the same
Another thing that caught our attention was the fact that the children of the community lived in a house that was almost hidden from the main house where we stayed. They didn’t go to school and the teachers of the community (who weren’t ‘real’ teachers, but people who’d discovered that their mission was to teach the little ones in the community) were the ones who gave them classes.
Furthermore, they all dressed in the same brown robes which they made themselves. The food was homecooked, vegan, extremely healthy, and all homegrown. In fact, they hardly bought anything, only the essentials.
They changed their names
They also all changed their identities, which is quite common in cults. All of them were required to change to a religious name “chosen by their God”. I don’t know what religion they followed. It wasn’t Christian, but a kind of adaptation of it, with certain modifications.
They had a spiritual guide who was the equivalent of Jesus but with another name. All the members’ names were also apparently chosen by their God. When this happened, they were baptized naked in the sea with a ritual and a ceremony.
There was no privacy
No member had their own room. They all slept in shared dormitories. Not even the couples had any privacy. My sister asked one of the members if they didn’t miss time alone. She replied that it’d be selfish, that everyone was there for everyone, and that they were always together.
Where were we?
I’m fully aware that what I’ve mentioned so far may seem a bit strange. However, you may not necessarily think we were staying with a cult, as such. We looked for where we were on my cell phone, for the name of the sect or community, and we found that someone had written a report on the place.
They defined it as a sect, one that was worldwide. Indeed, it seems that there are many groups with the same name in Europe and Latin America. The cult has a specific name but, as I mentioned earlier, I won’t mention it, to respect their privacy. We were able to expand on our own information by searching forums and the Internet. In addition, we saw videos and testimonies from people who’d passed through the community, and members of it, who were still inside, explaining how they lived. We were shocked.
We also found testimonials from cult experts, psychologists, and professionals. It seems that what we saw there was only a really small slice of what really happens.
The girl in our room
What struck us most was the testimony of a girl, about 30 years old, who slept in the same room as us. She’d been in the community for a few years, if I remember correctly, six or seven. Since then, she’s had no contact with her family.
She told us that the community had changed her life; that she’d felt extremely lost, was involved in the world of drugs, and was completely alone until she became a member of the community. She said she was ‘called’ by her God. However, there was a look in her eyes, the same look we’d seen in the others. And the way in which she spoke was more like a robot than a human. In fact, she simply repeated what the others said. It’s as if it were a motto, a message that was engraved in fire. And it was as if what had existed in her life previously no longer existed for her.
They have to hand over everything
She also told us that, in order to belong to the community, they have to give over everything they own before entering. They have to part with whatever assets they may have, whether they be houses, cars, etc. It seems that although “God has called them”, it doesn’t come for free. She said that they all know that the world is going to end and that, in their community, they’re all learning how to save themselves, together.
Their look and their way of speaking
This girl, who’d adopted a Hebrew name, told us many things about the place, so many that it’d be virtually impossible to collate them all in a single article. I noticed in her, as in all the members, something characteristic, that my sister also noticed (without having previously spoken about it) a certain look. In fact, they all looked the same. They seemed absent, extremely far away. Their words were more like echoes.
All their phrases and words were the same. They were like abductees. It was as if their brains had been reprogrammed. As if they didn’t have their own identities, only a joint identity, the one shared by the community. However, to them, everything was as it should be. Hardly surprising really, as by living in such isolated conditions, they’re hardly in a position to question anything. They were born there and they assume that’s all life has to offer them. No questions asked.
A positive experience
Despite our amazement at discovering this world, I don’t want it to seem like I’m criticizing anything. On the contrary, I deeply respect their way of life. That said, it doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of, as a rule, how a sect (not necessarily this one) can destroy lives. I don’t share their way of life, and I believe there are many ways of developing a community like this and remaining in it. Although I’m aware that every sect is different, for me, this one had many of the traditional elements.
However, I also have to admit that all of the members were charming to us. After all, they invited us to stay and answered my many questions. They treated us well and didn’t even let us help with the cooking or setting the table… something that also surprised me. The food was all vegan, and it was delicious. They asked for nothing from us. Without a doubt, I learned a great deal from the experience, from their particular world, and from everything they explained to us.
I didn’t sleep well that night because, deep down, I was pretty shocked. Furthermore, the girl who welcomed us and explained everything to us kept getting up to open and close cabinets. That said, everyone was really kind and I’d certainly do something like it again. After all, who am I to criticize a world I stumbled upon when I wasn’t even looking for it?It might interest you...