Nov 7, 2023

Survivors of Cults Speak Out

Aisha Sultan

Shelly Snow Pordea grew up in a fundamentalist religious sect.

When she was a child, her parents moved from her birthplace of St. Louis to Hammond, Indiana, to be near the First Baptist Church, an Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) megachurch then run by Jack Hyles.

Pordea, now 48, remembers her early life tightly revolving around this church.

The outside world, she was taught, was a threatening and scary place. Her parents subscribed to Hyles’ child-rearing methods, which promoted hitting children into submission -- spanking babies as young as 6 months old. Pordea said her parents later told her that they kept rubber bands on her wrists when she was 2 years old, which they would snap against her skin to keep her in line. It wasn’t until Pordea was 14 and listening to a talk about promiscuous women during an IFB youth camp that she realized she had been sexually abused as a 4-year-old by a church member.

After the lecture, she confided the abuse to a camp counselor.

“I was told I was tainted and not clean anymore,” Pordea said. And she had been conditioned to believe it.

As a teenager, she tried to keep the peace in her family, especially after her brother ran away from home at 17. She attended the unaccredited Hyles-Anderson College, where she took classes that taught her it was a woman’s fault if a man strayed from his marriage.

Pordea got some physical distance from the church when she got married and moved overseas with her husband, although she was still deeply invested in it emotionally and mentally. Through the internet, Pordea discovered the accusations against Hyles of sexual scandals and financial misappropriation. She began connecting with former IFB members on social media, who shared their own stories of abuse.

Over time, the indoctrination began to unravel. By age 30, Pordea began to believe she had been raised in a cult. In 2013, the church leader Jack Schaap, Hyles’ son-in-law, was convicted of taking a 16-year-old across state lines to have sex with her. He was sent to federal prison.

“That was a point of no return,” Pordea said.

Pordea, who now lives in St. Peters, Missouri, joined forces with others in the cult survivor world to host a first-ever, live storytelling event last month in St. Louis. She wants to raise awareness of how some organizations use coercion, manipulation and undue influence in order to abuse and control people.

The movement began during the pandemic with the #IGotOut hashtag on social media, with people sharing their own experiences in cultic groups. A number of documentaries, podcasts and TV shows have brought awareness to the diverse range of such organizations. Some are political, religious or spiritual, while others revolve around doomsday prophesies, sex, self-help and even multilevel marketing.

Gerette Buglion, an author and executive director of, was a teacher for 19 years before she became involved with a self-help group that eventually took over her life. She was introduced to the group leader by fellow teachers who were getting dream therapy sessions from him. Buglion began sessions as well, and the leader used the personal information she shared during therapy to slowly manipulate her and create dependence on him.

For 18 years, Buglion remained under the mind control of a charismatic fraud.

Almost 10 years ago, another woman in the organization described how the leader would yell at her for hours at a time for her perceived infractions. Because this information came from a person within the cult whom Buglion trusted and cared about, it created a big crack in her perception of the leader.

That was the opening she needed to get out.

Buglion, who has now heard hundreds of stories from survivors and their loved ones, said it is critical to try to maintain some kind of connection with a person you fear is being indoctrinated. She has since published the book “An Everyday Cult.” In it, she shows how anyone can be susceptible to narcissistic leaders and groups that claim to know the truth. They use natural human vulnerabilities and group dynamics to slowly take over a person’s critical thinking skills.

“The level of shame is very high for people coming out of cultic organizations,” she said. She was plagued with questions about how she, an educated person, could have let it get so bad and stayed for so long.

In recent years, many survivors have found connection through social media. Those connections, plus the pandemic lockdown and a boom in media programs about cults, have prompted many to reexamine their relationships with their tight-knit groups and leaders.

Pordea recalls watching Leah Remini’s documentary, “Scientology and the Aftermath,” with her husband, who hadn't fully accepted the truth about his and Pordea's upbringing.

Watching Remini's story, the parallels to his own life finally hit him.

He looked at Pordea, stunned.

“Oh my God, it was a cult,” he said.

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