Who Can We Become When We Are Disconnected from Family?

In the past week I've been watching at least an episode a day of Leah Remini's Scientoogy and the Aftermath. For me, it's brought up a lot of interesting ideas to play with about family, belonging and resource that I wanted to write about.

In simplest terms, the TV show boils down to a series of interviews with ex-members of the church of Scientoogy. What is shared is a complex picture of systematic abuse and unfathomable cult behavior. Story after story describes a person of authority in the church abusing church members while acting in righteousness that their actions were morally and ethically sound. And not only that, those who were witnessing the abuse also believed the authority was doing the right thing in these cases.

As the show progresses, the plot that unfolds in the foreground is a story of devout believers who were steadfast that they were doing what was best for humanity even when they were building a secret prison, bankrupting followers and covering up physical and sexual abuse.

But there's another profound throughline that runs throughout this show and is part of every story I've watched. It is a throughline that shows us what people can be manipulated to do when an organization is allowed to install itself as the sole source of their belonging to the world. Which is to say, what can happen when family comes second.

Where we belong

It's my experience both as a facilitator of family healing and as a human being that where we feel we belong plays a huge role in what we value in life. And by extension, it plays a significant role in the way we behave when we are faced with a challenge.

Here's a broad example of how this can play out. Of course, in reality there are always exceptions to these hypothetical brush strokes.

First imagine a person only takes advice from trained MDs from the American Medical Association (AMA) and refuses any outside advice. Second, imagine another person that uses only holistic approaches, nutrition and other alternative healing methods whenever they are sick.

Let's say both develop cancer. Though there's an argument that both the AMA and holistic schools of healing are helpful, I strongly suggest that the second person who solely values holistic approaches would be in possible mortal danger if they refused all conventional wisdom of a medical doctor.

Now, let's change the illness. What if both people have a chronic autoimmune issue that causes skin inflammation? Again, both the MD and holistic practitioner are helpful sources of heath information but for anyone that's had autoimmune issues, you know that a lot of conventional approaches in this area boil down to symptom suppression. If your skin is regularly inflamed, you'll get a skin cream to use in perpetuity. However, what if adopting a new diet makes the skin issues disappear completely? If you refused to see anyone that looked at health from a holistic perspective you may never realize that you were allergic to something you were eating all along.

My point is this...

When we look to one place of belonging as the source of 100% of answers to all questions without engaging opposing viewpoints there are consequences. And those consequences are the results of the actions we take when we have a blind spot to other possibilities. In an extreme example, we can die of an otherwise curable cancer because we didn't believe in seeing a medical doctor.

Here's where I loop back to Scientoogy. Again, when we believe the group we belong to has 100% percent of the answers, there are consequences. We look to one source for advice about health, spirituality, interpersonal relationships, and finding purpose in life. Blind spots develop. We begin to refuse to take outside advice. And most importantly, we refuse to take our own advice if it conflicts with the dominant belief system.

And how do you double down on the worst parts of belonging to one organization and one alone? You put family second to it. That's when everything really hits the fan. And that's the subtext underneath all the worst stories of abuse shared in Leah Remini's show.

Story after story talks about the church policy that if you speak out against or leave Scientoogy everyone you know in the church is required to never speak to you again. Meaning you lose all connection to your friends, parents, siblings, spouse and your children all at once. Families are ripped apart.

When an organization occupies a stronger place of belonging than your own family they have an incredible power over you. Not only the power to tell you who you can and cannot speak to, but the power to convince you to perpetrate abuse. 'Brainwashing' is a word that gets thrown around a lot on this show. I'm suggesting that the bizarre and abusive acts are a byproduct of what people can become when we turn our natural sense of belonging on its head.

Your fail-safe, your family

The picture that emerges as I watch this show is that the opposing opinions a family expresses are actually an asset to its members. In other words, the family member that always argues with you at the dinner table is a corrective force. They become a voice that can prevent you from adopting extreme views or belief systems. Which is not to say that person is always right. Sometimes our family supports us by pushing us to clarify our own views through putting us on the defensive. And of course, you are simultaneously playing the same role for them.

But on some level, our family brings us back to earth and grounds us in the real. That's why as a church policy, families were broken up in favor of Scientoogy. It was necessary to keep the believers in the system. Because eventually, someone in every family will dissent.

Families have an uncanny ability to have at least one member that challenges the status quo. If it isn't you, your parents, aunts or uncles, or brothers or sisters, your child might be the 'trouble maker' or the 'black sheep.' That tendency towards dissent, which emerges naturally within all families, might be the exact thing the family needs when one or more members are beginning to go off the deep end. So we can actually value dissenters in our families for that. Value them for inspiring the family or ourselves to clarify viewpoints and value the possibility that they may help change minds for the better when it's really needed. Simply put, dissent deserves a place at the table.

There are exceptions to what is shared here. Every family is different, and one of the most critical exceptions to what I've shared above is when a family or family members are physically, verbally or sexually abusive. In a case like this a person must take immediate action to secure their safety and reduce harm. In other words, they must leave the situation. Belonging can and should be found elsewhere, but as I've suggested above, caution must be taken because there are sources of belonging that can be as dangerous as an abusive family.

A closing holiday thought...

As we enter the holidays it's a time where I start to hear people recite a popular quote in healing communities:

“If you think you are so enlightened, go and spend a week with your parents.”

I've understood this as either a hypothetical that suggests your inflated sense of self would easily crumble in a short period of time spent with family. Or that the quote represents a shared admission that no one's family is perfect.

After watching this show about Scientoogy the quote has taken on a different meaning for me. I now read this as a practical piece of advice:

If you think you are so enlightened, please go spend a week with your parents or extended family because it could save you from becoming so self-righteous that you would unconsciously hurt yourself or others.


Nick Werber