My cult leader was not beautiful, not when I knew her. She was short and fat with thinning gray hair, dressed in floral print mumus and cracked black leather loafers and went by the nickname Giggy. Carol Balizet was cute in the black and white photos of herself she’d papered her bedroom walls with, photos of herself as a teen and young adult. She was charismatic, which is not the same as beautiful. It lasts longer.
When she spoke, it was as if she was illuminated by a psychic spotlight. She glowed. It didn’t matter very much that she often spoke nonsense or else had her facts twenty years out of date. She spoke with such confidence and authority, I believed her. Sometimes she would shine that light on me, approve of me or make me feel special, and it was like being chosen by the sun as its favorite.
When she believed herself to be better educated than her audience, she was at ease. She visited my mother, sister, and I once when we were living out of state. My mother was having a small party with colleagues from work, other PhDs. Suddenly Giggy’s nursing degree didn’t impress anyone, and she turned sour and sulky. Her light went out. Like Tinkerbell, she needed belief and applause to really live.
I know now it’s a trope to compare people to Hitler, but I didn’t know it when my fifth grade teacher showed us footage from one of the Nuremberg rallies. I just knew that the short, angry looking little man shouting in German was no conventional beauty – and that everyone wanted to listen to him anyway. I saw he had that light, that light that turned people into followers. I saw something of her in him; when I learned what he’d done after those rallies I hated myself for making the association.
That light is a terrible, beautiful, awful, seductive thing. And it is far more powerful than brains or beauty or brawn. It’s like a social drug, being near a charismatic narcissist gets you high. The trouble is you can’t think clearly when so intoxicated. If I’m honest with myself, when I feel myself miss her, it’s probably that high I miss. I think she literally altered my brain chemistry when I was in her presence. It felt as real as any of the drugs I’ve tried, more real than most loves.
And all it would cost me to chase that dragon is absolutely everything.
Cults have a small success rate helping people to quit using drugs, by getting them hooked on the leader’s light instead. Like any addiction, it’s an ever worsening cycle of craving, fulfilment, and withdrawal. The leader bestows their light on new initiates, makes them feel special and high. Once they are dependence on that light, the leader turns away casting them into darkness. Approval is withheld as the member strives to prove their worth. Just before despair takes them, the leader gives them just enough light to keep the addiction going.