Jul 12, 2023

I Narrowly Escaped Being Recruited By A Cult. Then I Realized I Was Already In One.

Rachel Stowe
Huffington Post
July 10, 2023

While visiting an exhibit at the Frist Art Museum in Tennessee, I recognized the familiar face of an old schoolmate.

“Oh, hey E,” I greeted her. She made eye contact but turned away without any other reaction.

Then, on the other side of the room, I saw her: the famous weight-loss magnate turned cult leader, guiding a flock of women and girls through the exhibit. They were dressed in their uniform whites, and sported identical, enormous coifs that their leader was famous for. Hers, of course, was the largest, reaching the highest toward heaven.

I knew Gwen Shamblin, her family and many of her followers from my childhood community. I was raised in the Church of Christ in Nashville, the Buckle on the Bible Belt. The Shamblin family attended our church before Gwen founded a congregation dedicated to thinness and beauty called Remnant Fellowship Church, whose members said they pulled out of “mainstream” church culture to pursue the truth.

I was in her swimming pool with my youth group the time I got slut-shamed by a minister for wearing a two-piece to a church event. Other girls wore two-pieces, but with my curvy figure, it was more noticeably shameful. Even the T-shirt I wore over mine was obviously not sufficient. We almost never did “mixed bathing,” or males and females swimming together, to avoid lust — the deadliest sin in the American South.

I had listened to tapes from Weigh Down, Gwen’s Christian weight-loss program. She called the weight struggle a gift from God, and instructed her adoring listeners on how to control their eating. I longed to be thin and beautiful, much like the girls who were leaving my church to attend hers. I was never invited.

I went to a church-affiliated school attended by the young Shamblins, as well as E and many other future members of the Remnant. They were all pretty, middle school royalty, and they became Remnant royalty, with some marrying into Gwen’s family or joining the church leadership.

The Remnant community became increasingly more controversial as the years went on. Its members kept to themselves, but were often a hot topic of conversation among us “mainstream” Christians. To those on the outside, Gwen’s “church” looked like a cult.

When HBO released “The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin,” a 2021 docuseries that explored allegations of physical and psychological abuse by Gwen and her church, I felt relieved that being homely and curvy back then quite possibly saved me from being recruited.

In my youth, I remained loyal to my church, going to a Christian university and taking mission trips to Russia and the South Pacific. But after graduation, I fell in love with an atheist and lived abroad for 10 years. This distance removed the pressure to attend church and gave me space to reflect on my beliefs. By the time we moved back to Nashville when I was 30, I had started to change my mind. Though I never officially departed the church, I had quiet-quit.

Then I went to a dinner party.

I was sitting on a friend’s deck, across from Bob, a year after returning to Nashville. My friend was raving about Bob’s psychiatry practice, and I saw my chance at free therapy. Bob asked about my background. I explained my childhood, my school and, of course, my church. We got into how I knew Gwen and her followers, and how I’d bought into the Weigh Down movement, trying to be Kate Moss skinny like most girls raised in the 90’s.

“I’m lucky I dodged that cult bullet!” I laughed.

He shrugged. “Well, except that the Church of Christ is a cult.”

No, the Remnant is a cult.

Bob added: “Didn’t you also go to a church-affiliated school? Cults want to completely overtake your social life to ensure you are only around other members.”

My mind started to race. The first tactic of cults is to isolate you while you are inundated with their ideology. My church community pressured me to attend Christian college so my education would be aligned with Christianity. And to find a Christian husband, of course. Oh, man. Yeah.

My first exposure to the outside was in ninth grade. I had begged my parents to switch me to public school. I felt I was missing something. I’d never danced (except alone in my room) since dancing was treated in the church like having sex with your clothes on. Instead, my school had banquets, like in the Bible. I’d known the same people since birth.

The culture shock in my first year of public school was mind-blowing. I’d never met anyone who didn’t do their homework, much less people who went to make-out parties … or worse. It took me six months to make a friend.

Therapist Bob was making some fair points about the isolation factor of my alleged cult. But I was still not convinced.

He pointed out another trait of cults. “If you try to leave, you can, but not without psychological terrorism and ostracism.”

Aw, jeez. My mind flashed to a few months prior when I was on one of my visits to see relatives, which in my family include nonnegotiable trips to their church. With no desire to go to Sunday school, I offered to take my 2-year-old niece to the nursery. After 10 minutes, the teacher set a toy telephone in front of each toddler. She motioned to a wall of labeled hooks where parents would hang diaper bags, and she pointed to the bare ones. To the tune of “Frère Jacques,” they dedicated a song verse to each absent kid while holding the plastic phones to their little ears.

Hello absent child Billy, hello absent child Billy.

Where are you? Where are you?

Oh, how we miss you, oh, how we miss you.

Come back to church soon, come back to church soon.

Bob kept going: “Cults create a whole way of life motivated by fear and guilt and shame. Cults make you feel like you need them to have value.” Shit. I was shaking. But Bob didn’t stop! He said the church grooms you to hate yourself. To believe that you’re wrong as you are, that you’re selfish and dirty.

Therapist Bob needed to shut up now. I’d never felt so exposed in my life.

A few months later, even though I’d distanced myself from the church, I was pressured into co-leading a mission trip to Australia with university students. I’d gone there when I was still in school, and convinced myself it would be cool to see my friends from that time again.

There was a moment on the trip when a lightning bolt of truth hit me between the eyes. At Sunday morning church, we’d divided into “prayer groups.” Within each circle, everyone was called on individually to share any current struggles. The leader was scribbling notes to supposedly “pray about” afterward.

She zeroed in on one young woman in our circle: “What about that friend you talked about last week? Has God answered that prayer? You need to tell her and her boyfriend to stop.”

It quickly became an interrogation, and the young woman was visibly uncomfortable. I was too, though many others were nodding in agreement, putting pressure on her to put pressure on her friend … about her sex life?!

Therapist Bob was right. Cults thrive on shame, fear, control. What else would you call this?

These kinds of “prayer requests” were done in every single Sunday school class I ever attended. They were printed in our church bulletin. They were done in small groups, in the chapel, and in front of the entire congregation. I had done them my whole life. Suddenly I could see that the purpose was manipulation and control, disguised as offering prayer. Though Gwen Shamblin never recruited me, Bob was right when he’d looked me dead in the eye that night at the dinner party and said, “Rachel, you were raised in a cult.”

I was miserable for the rest of the Australia trip. I fought with my host family, I fought with the other leader, and the students all hated me. I knew that this was it: the last time I would ever be involved with the church. I finally learned that quiet quitting wasn’t enough. I had to break up with my church outright.

Now, years after that realization, I’m still deprogramming myself. But I’m grateful to have gotten out. I’ve seen what can happen when you don’t. Perhaps E recognized me that day at the Frist, but the years of consuming mental poison had transformed her. Her eyes were empty.


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