“A Hamster Wheel of Self-Help.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 2)
Here’s Part 2 of my conversation with Rachel Bernstein on her IndoctriNation podcast. Part 1 is here.Please consider supporting her work by subscribing to the podcast via Patreon.
Rachel Bernstein: 00:04
Welcome to IndoctriNation, a weekly conversation series about protecting yourself from systems of control. I am your host, Rachel Bernstein. Welcome to part two of my interview with Matthew Remski. He is the survivor of two yoga-related cults and is now the father of two with his partner. He’s also an instructor and an author. He has some very interesting insights and has done a lot of research. I look forward to having you hear him speak about his experiences and also how to get past a lot of what he went through and some good guidelines for others who have been through those kinds of experiences. Let’s talk to him now.
Rachel Bernstein: 00:47
So you were involved in [Michael Roach’s] group for how long?
Matthew Remski: 00:49
For just over three years. Okay. And then he took six or seven of his female students into retreat for three years, a private retreat. And that was started in 2000. That meant that he was kind of like out of the picture, but also he did a number of things at the end. I got fairly into, doing some of the… I said earlier that I had stopped writing, but I started writing for him actually, which was, I think was even more detrimental to my mental health. So one of the key things that happened was that I was, that I realized, I’ve written an entire book for this guy based upon transcripts from his long-winded talks. And I’ve actually made him sound good and he’s not even going to do anything with it. I realized this was a pattern: that everybody was getting these meaningless, dead-end tasks that were incredibly time intensive and labor intensive and really determined that people would be emotionally focused upon him. Then the projects would go nowhere. There’d be no final result. Even within the group, there was this sense of, Oh yeah, he’s helping you burn off your aspirations or your selfishness or he’s helping you see where your own narcissism is preventing you from understanding the nature of reality and so on. So there were explanations for that as well.
Rachel Bernstein: 02:34
Yeah. Explanations, justifications, they usually happen so that they can kind of uphold the idea that he is someone who is necessary in our lives in ways that are obvious to us and also ways that are not. And it keeps us from really seeing that were being used, um, that it’s this hamster wheel actually.
Matthew Remski: 03:08
I really like how Janja Lalich talks about “bounded reality” [correction: “bounded choice”] where there’s nothing that’s disconfirming. So if he gives you a task, you accomplish the task for the good of the Dharma worldwide or whatever. And if you don’t accomplish the task you’ve paid some sort of penance. But there’s no, there’s no universe in which you can say, Wait a minute, you just wasted my time. You just manipulated me and stole my labor.
Rachel Bernstein: 03:36
The closed system: you can’t get outside information.
Matthew Remski: 03:41
And any result confirms the nature of the system.
Rachel Bernstein: 03:45
And anything positive is because of him anything negative is because of you. That’s built into it. Yeah. Nice little things sprinkled on top of all of it. Thanks! Thanks for that. Like I needed something else to make me feel bad about me! So then through the help of a friend got involved in this next group. So tell me about your experiences there.
Matthew Remski: 04:20
Endeavor Academy I think still exists, but I don’t know how many people still live there. I’ve lost touch with the people who are still there. I’m still in touch with through social media with three or four of former members who were in residence there. It’s in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. And it was founded by a guy named Charles Anderson who died in 2008 and so that would have been like five years after after I had left. And he was a recovered, well, not-quite-recovered, dry alcoholic, Alcoholics Anonymous, Blue-Book-thumping…. But also his main text was A Course in Miracles. And I think that what impressed — I mean I actually fell for this, which even though I was deceived, I still give myself a side-eye about this one.
When I first walked into one of his sessions, which would just be him teaching extemporaneously and often in a sort of of garbled, jazzy, scatty kind of way. He was quite a wordsmith and bullshit artist. He looked straight at me and he said, Oh, I see the Buddhist has arrived! And then he took his sock and he smacked me across the head. And there’s this conversion story in Tibetan Buddhism where one of the saints, Marpa, takes a sandal and hits Milarepa over the head with it. I found out later that that somebody had given some intel to him, right? I thought he had just intuited that and he said: You are free as God made you, so what are you going to do? Meditate about that?
And you know, there was something very compelling, not just about the deception but about this line, which he would feed to everybody, which is you are, as a human being, a perpetual tangle of doubt and uncertainty. Can you just get over it already? Like you’re not doing yourself any favors by contemplating or by meditating. Just understand that: you’re standing in the light of God right now or whatever. This was his pitch: Because I’m certain about who I am. You can be too.
So there was something, to this day there was something compelling and existentially impressive about that particular turn that I haven’t seen in any other set of exchanges. Maybe this sounds familiar to you, but the thing is that he was really a one-trick pony. Like that was the one cognitive challenge to people’s anxiety or depression that he could offer. And then everything that was built around that was, you know, financial, emotional, physical, sexual exploitation. So it took me about a year to recognize that. And then I think as is common with, with a lot of people’s experience, it takes a lot longer to leave than you want. That’s because it’s hard to find anybody to talk to. It’s because you’ve invested a lot already. It’s because what are you going to do outside anyway?
Rachel Bernstein: 08:33
You doubt yourself. I’ve heard people say that, by and large — and I’ve seen this with the former members that I work with — that they were unhappy for a very long time before they took action to leave. And still some are kind of half in, half out. They’re just… it’s a process. Sometimes it takes longer for different people. Certainly. It’s interesting you talk about his way of being with you and being on the stage and even though you saw that he was this one trick pony and it became that if you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. Like it all is sort of the same everywhere. think that there is something about someone being very sure, and that’s what works in sales.
Matthew Remski: 09:20
He was a salesman.
Rachel Bernstein: 09:21
Yeah. So he was confrontative and he also seemed insightful and psychic to a certain degree, even though he had gotten intel, which often happens. But I think the fact that he had this kind of challenge for you and also said that he was someone who had benefited from this and he is someone who is these things, and you can be this too. It is like every sales pitch wrapped into this perfect little package, so, you know, it made an impact. It’s every technique of influence all in this couple of sentences.
Matthew Remski: 10:00
He wrapped it up and tied it in a bow and he did it in a way that was alternating – and this is where I find Alexandra Stein’s work so incredibly useful — really sharply alternating between the seemingly loving and the absolutely wrathful. Putting one in the very confused position of “Oh, am I receiving love at this point or am I being dismissed or am I being abused? How can I tell those apart? Is one the function of the other? Does one depend upon the other? Yeah. So he was particularly good at that.
Rachel Bernstein: 10:46
It’s a very controlling thing to do. It’s something that I’ve talked about in the past about intermittent gratification. So you kind of wait around for it to feel good again for the person to be happy with you. You then learn that you need to stay there. You can’t abandon this because there might be a payout soon. So if you can learn how to do it right, then it’s going to feel really good. Cause when it feels bad, it feels bad and it’s right in front of people too. So you kind of want to have that resolution that’s in a public way in front of people.
Matthew Remski: 11:25
At Endeavor Academy — this gave me a little bit of insight moving into researching Ashtanga yoga — is that the feel-food drug that was on offer every day was fairly regular. There was an inconsistency for sure in whether or not Charles Anderson was going to love you or abuse you. So that, as I understand dopamine systems, that kind of uncertainty really jacks up the pleasure principle when it hits.
But then there was another mechanism which was called “session”. That was every morning from about 8 till 11. He would start by giving like a rambling sermon about, about the Course in Miracles or, you know, whatever he was thinking about. That would last for about an hour. Then he would have Mitch, one of his main students, play music, like really loud club music. And then we would all get up and Kundalini jitterbug all over the room, arms raised, jumping as high as we could, barking like dogs, smashed in together.
And when I came across this line in Stein’s book, I think she gets it from Hannah Arendt, she talks about like an “airless compression” between people within a totalitarian system. That was exactly it. Like we actually had a mosh pit dance party, which sounds great in some ways, but it was every single day, and you basically had to go, and it was intense physically. It was intense psychologically, and there was so much exertion involved that there was this feeling of like almost blankness for the rest of the day. So there was this stimulation like pseudo-euphoria.
When I saw a hidden camera stuff, footage in Wild, Wild Country where they captured some of what was going on in either in the Oregon ashram or in Poona in India where — did you see that? Where there was the group that sort of fly on the wall group therapy sessions that were, that were violence, you know, physical and sexual assault, you know, cast as therapy encounters. But the daily experience — now that might have been the most intense, pockets of that activity — but the daily experience where people were doing this kind of shaking and speaking in tongues and screaming and crying and all of this extroversion…
I really wish the filmmakers had actually interviewed people about what the impacts of that shit was. Because I know from personal experience that it’s an extremely effective control mechanism that, that nothing matters. You overload yourself with that kind of endorphin rush for a couple hours in the morning, you can’t think for the rest of the day. You’re going to be blank, you’re going to do what you can socially to get by. But really there’s going to be a glaze between you and the next person.
Ever since then, contemplating what the impact was on me. I’ve been fascinated in especially the bodily tactics of high control groups, and that shows up in the work that I do on Ashtanga yoga because the people who ended up being subjugated and assaulted by Pattabhi Jois were also involved in intense, intense physical activity that really lowered their defences. So yeah, that’s a point of fascination for me.
Rachel Bernstein: 15:51
Yeah, I think that there are a couple of things that are really interesting about it. One is that it does take you into a different headspace. There’s no question it exhausts you and exhilarates you at the same time. It sends you also off balance. But also it’s this: when it’s done in a perfunctory way, then it is not something that feels authentic. You’re pushing yourself to do it. Which means that it could have been beyond what your body could tolerate. You might’ve already come from a place of being underslept or underfed and it’s just depleting you more and more, but it leaves you in a confused state because there’s a rush and kind of a giddiness around it at times. And so I think just, it’s another way to keep people off-balance.
Matthew Remski: 16:43
It’s also terribly addictive because if there’s, you know, certain endorphin opiate release, at a high level, at a regular time per day, and that’s also involved in a kind of social contact, but it’s blindered, or it’s not an intersubjective social contact. There’s this sheen between people. It’s like you’re, you’re using each other for the contact high, but you’re simultaneously isolated. It’s really hard to break away from that. And I think, I think it was that daily experience that I held onto longest, actually, long after I realized that Charles Anderson is just, just babbling. Long after I realized that, you know, so a bunch of people are going personally bankrupt, taking out credit card loans to pay for his bullshit. Like I still, I hung onto that, that bodily experience because that was a really powerful drug.
Rachel Bernstein: 17:49
A very powerful drug. Right. And your body accommodates and acclimates to something that happens on a regular basis. So at that time of day, you know, your body can start to crave it or miss it and whether or not it’s healthy anymore. Yeah. And that becomes a confusing message for your system as well. I think also anything that’s done in that multisensory way also has more staying power within our systems afterwards because it was just more input from the experience. But yeah, it’d be interesting to talk to you more about that. And to expand on that. I think to bring us to Ashtanga yoga: first of all, how did you leave this group and then start doing your other research?
Matthew Remski: 18:34
In about 2003. One of the things that Anderson would do is that as that he would finish up session and he would tell Mitch to put the dance music on and, and then he would go upstairs. It was this old hotel, if anybody knows the Wisconsin Dells, it’s like filled with old mobster hotels that are kind of like falling in and you could buy them up in the 80s or whatever for cheap. And so he’d go to his upper room, and his, you know, the inner circle plus the kind of sycophants-du-jour would run up the stairs after him. And I remember, I don’t know why I went up one day, but I remember I was the first one there for some reason. And I knocked on his door and he said, Yeah.
And I came around the corner and it’s just like 1970s-80s hotel room. Totally sort of nondescript. And you know, you open the door and turn the corner and the bathroom is right to the right, just as it would be in a hotel room. And I looked in and I saw him just like, yeah, looking into the mirror, like, What the hell am I doing? He didn’t say that, but it was like: I’m exhausted.
And then I said, I said, Old man? That’s what we called him. And then I literally saw him put his face on back again. He turned, and then he was like, he did his googly eyes and he did his “I see who you are.” But I fucking saw that guy become his persona. And something something snapped in my brain. Something similar happened with, with Michael Roach. So that’s been key for me is to realize that…. To just see this veil crack.
And so anyway, I can’t remember, it wasn’t that long afterwards that I was like just edging away and trying to pull my roots out without breaking them and withdraw, without being amputated and preserve some friendships and preserve the relationship that I was in at the time. And so then there was a long period of waiting on tables and learning yoga and wandering and as I said, I came into yoga because I found it to be a recovery space. I could feel my body as mine again. I remember the first time I rolled over after a class, I looked at my hand and I went, oh, hello, I’m here and I’m, I’m okay. And, and so there was something about, there was, there was something about the very simple instructions that were very powerful to me and, you know, but honestly, it didn’t take that long before I started hearing about, about some toxic dynamics.
I just didn’t want to know though. I didn’t want to hear that much about it and maybe, you know, about eight or nine years into my teaching career, owning two studios by that time, I started to hear more and more stories about not only sexual misconduct and financial shenanigans within various yoga organizations, but then really specifically, “Oh, you know Pattabhi Jois, who is probably responsible for more responsible for the global expansion and commodification of yoga practice then anybody else except for Mr. Iyengar — this guy was understood to be a sexual predator and that he got away with it.”
And that stayed on the level of rumor as far as I was concerned, except that in 2010, one of the women who he assaulted named Anneka Lucas finally published about it 10 years after the assault happened. And you know, people didn’t look at it very carefully, and it kind of disappeared on the website that it was on went under and it took, you know, me actually realizing that I was ignoring the story of a friend of mine. Her name is Diane Bruni here in Toronto. And she had been aware of the sexual assault. She was part of the Ashtanga Yoga world. You know, she told this story and I just, I realized at a certain point that I had not wanted to hear it. And then when I realized that, I was like, Nope, I’m gonna figure this out cause this is extraordinary.
I was particularly taken aback by the fact that it was a mainstream story. I was fearful. I was fearful of the fact that this was not, we’re not talking about some weird leader of some weird group that I was in Wisconsin. We were talking about somebody who had had more influence over this global industry than almost anybody else. And that some key ways in which the postures are practiced, namely that teachers and students have been operating in these spaces of implied consent with regard to touch, that teachers have felt free for the last 20 years to just touch people’s bodies even though they have no training whatsoever in manual therapy or whatever. But that all comes from that guy. And others, but very strongly from that guy.
And he was adjusting people. He was adjusting women, primarily, so that he could sexually assault them. And he was adjusting men, I would argue, primarily so that he could physically assault them. People do say they had wonderful experiences being, being adjusted by him. But then, you know, if you scratch the surface, they’ll also describe being hurt or being an utter terror and, you know, somehow willing themselves to, to feel better about it. So I dug up Anneka Lucas’s story and then another writer on another journalist named Elizabeth Kadetsky said, “You should try to get in touch with Karen Haberman, ’cause she might have a story to tell. But Karen Haberman has changed her name.”
I had to do this detective work to find her. I phoned her out of the blue. If people look her up, she’s actually become, through her own activism, one of the most prominent voices in the yoga reform movement, even though she doesn’t really care about the yoga world anymore.
So about three years of making connections like that, slowly put me in touch with a total of 16 people who gave testimony as to having been assaulted by Jois over a 30 year period. And I think that, just to return to like my main fascination is that this is somebody with like mainstream, mainstream, mainstream influence. I remember when I pitched the feature article that got published to The Walrus, my pitch line was this is the Harvey Weinstein of Yoga. I said, except that nobody thought of Harvey Weinstein as being a spiritual master. But what I really wanted to convey to the public and in part through this book was that, you know, in an unregulated industry in which people are seeking physical, emotional, and perhaps therapeutic and sometimes spiritual benefits, we have to look at where the material comes from really carefully. We have to look at who’s behind it, who’s created it, what kind of, what kind of power dynamics have created this teaching structure that has now spread across the world. So this is not to say that everybody who’s engaged in modern postural yoga is somehow abusing people. It’s still going to be a minority, a very small minority. But hopefully the work starts to expose that minority. And
Rachel Bernstein: 27:29
That would be really quite wonderful because you know, I hear about different yoga organizations run by people who were brought up on different charges, others where it really stays under the radar and you don’t really know about them until you get involved. And then it turns out, you know, Oops! The leader thinks he’s the messiah, like it wasn’t in the brochure.
Matthew Remski: 27:54
Right. Yeah. And there’s a basic safety issue involved too with regards to the dishonesty of groups that harbor abuse histories. So some of what I’m doing, not only in the book but also as a consultant, is trying to figure out and then also call out people who are basing their authority for their spiritual content upon an organization that has an abuse history, but not being clear with that and not showing the public: Okay, well this is how I’ve actually understood it, or this is how I’ve interrogated the power dynamics, that I actually don’t want to replicate.
You know, some of your listeners would probably know of a popular writer here in Canada named Doctor Gabor Maté, who’s a GP but has written a lot about trauma and adverse childhood experiences and addiction and stuff like that. He has a program that he collaborates on with another teacher and it seeks to bring Yoga practices into his addictions recovery program, or he lends support to a program that’s called Beyond Addiction. And the yoga portion is provided by members of the Kundalini Yoga Group. And, you know, this is a group with a really problematic history that — because I don’t think Dr. Maté investigated it — they just sort of get a free pass into providing services ostensibly for traumatized people. And then anybody attending these programs, however, can Google “Kundalini cult” or “Kundalini Yoga abuse”. And then suddenly they realize they’re in a training program in which somebody is promoting the benefits of the ideas and the practices they got from somebody who was clearly either unethical or an abusive person.
And then we have to wonder about, Okay, well what else are they passing on? Or has that history been digested in any kind of transparent way? So I think that’s going to be a big growth industry actually: people in the Yoga and Buddhism worlds figuring out: Oh, I learned this stuff and some of it was really helpful to me and I teach it, but I also learned it from a very problematic place and from a problematic person, you know, whose failures conscious or unconscious — and perhaps their crimes — I certainly don’t want to either rationalize or normalize or elevate or just not look at. So yeah, I think transparency is going to be the keyword of the next 30 years of the Yoga and Buddhism worlds.
Rachel Bernstein: 30:59
And I think it’s a very important thing also for there to be some sort of system of checks and balances. You know, with so many of these groups that don’t have a kind of an overarching governing body, then anything can happen without oversight. And so how do you set that up without it being kind of a police state? But still where there’s somebody to call if something happens and that they do something to protect you. I feel like that needs to be more set in place and I’m glad that you’re, you know, you’re talking about this transparency. What’s also interesting, I’m sure you found is that some people care about that more than others. When they hear that there’s a group that has kind of a checkered history or a leader that has a checkered history, they might say, that’s enough for me to not want to be involved in other people saying, yeah, but the practice really feels good. Or I really like it.
Matthew Remski: 31:51
And the dividing line might be really trauma awareness, either of the person’s own history… Nobody has an easy go of it, but if you don’t identify as having a trauma load, you might be in that latter category of like, well, I’m going to take what I can. But if you do know a little bit of what you carry, then I think that transparency is going to be more important. And I think it means that those who are aware of their trauma loads are really the canaries in the mine for everybody else. To use the phrase of a friend of mine, Theo Wildcroft, who says that in order to create a really safe space it has to be safe for the most vulnerable person there. It would be good if we could start holding ourselves to that ideal.
But it’s difficult because Yoga and Buddhism, like life coaching, are all unregulated. And they’re resistant to regulation, not just because people want to continue to be under the radar, but also because at least in the yoga world, the discourse is heavily Americanized. There’s a very characteristically American approach to keep your hands off of my spirituality: this is my private stuff. That’s a factor too.
Rachel Bernstein: 33:24
Right? So how does strike a balance so that it’s not tampered with and there isn’t so much of that kind of regulatory force where it doesn’t work anymore as kind of a spiritual endeavor. Because it’s too tense, but also that there are safeguards because that has been lacking. I’m really glad that you’re pinpointing the problems, the pitfalls. And I am curious as we finish up: What have you found, what have you found that you’ve learned just in terms of the vulnerability that we all have and why we might have it. I know we touched on it a little bit, but you’ve done so much research and you’ve talked to so many people. I’m just curious about your insights as we finish up.
Rachel Bernstein: 34:17
This book that’s coming out just wouldn’t exist without the bravery of the women who were able to find a voice to speak about how they were abused within this group. Learning how to listen to that experience has, I almost want to say, it’s become a kind — it’s suggested a different type of spirituality to me. When I tried to put myself in the place of somebody like Karen Rain who has taken 20 years to recover from these daily assaults, I realize something about how much care people actually need and how much support they need. Not care directly from me. But structural support and how important it is for people to be believed when they describe their trauma experiences and how important it is for people to be advocated for.
When the prevailing ideology of the culture is to blame the victim for having been so stupid, for staying, or to foster this belief that your freewill and your common sense should have just turned you away from that toxic environment and why didn’t it? These are all really ignorant responses that lead me back to something that Anneka Lucas actually told me in the first interview that we did with her about her story. And this has always stuck with me. She said “I believe that we can recognize the trauma of other people to the extent that we recognize that we ourselves have been traumatized.” That’s become a mantra for me.
So by listening to Karen, in making a lot of mistakes, you know, screwing up a lot, interrupting her or you know, whatever I’ve done over the last couple of years of interviewing, I have been able to understand something more about my own experience and I’ve also stopped being afraid, I think, of the fact that the traumatized person is somehow a danger to my sense of order in the world. My friend Theo Wildcraft says that society regards the trauma victim or the cult survivor, we could say also, as a contagious. If you really take on their story, if you really go into: Oh, this is how you were completely overwhelmed, this is how you were totally taken over and this is the profound material and perhaps unchangeable effects that you’ve experienced. If you really go into that as a listener, you might both have to connect with your own experience of that or you might have to start asking questions about the whole thing. You might have to start asking questions about all of your relationships, about all of the systems of power that you participate in. And I think that’s very profound and I’m not so scared of that any more. I wouldn’t say I’m free of the fear of questions, but I’m certainly more free than I have been.
Rachel Bernstein: 37:34
That’s all very beautiful. And I think it’s so important that we’re talking about people who have been through trauma and then they’re retraumatized by being sequestered in that kind of group of people who might do us harm or might give uncomfortable insights that we’re not quite ready for many things, but it is very true. And to not be afraid of it, to be able to kind of protect yourself along the way. Finding ways to do that so that you can invite their experiences into your world and their pain into your world without taking you over. I think it’s a nice way of finding that balance of connection to other people in the world and their experiences. Beautiful. I can’t wait for people to read your book. I mean, I wrote down some phrases as you were talking. I can see that you’re a wordsmith. I wrote down, “Kundalini jitterbug” and “sycophants du jour”. They were great. And when I hear one of those little nuggets, you know, I have to write it down. But that is a, it’s really great to be able to talk to you. I know you have many more stories, so hopefully we can, we can speak again and not only more stories but more insights and just in terms of your own way of kind of navigating so many different realms and worlds and trying to be open to things and, and that in healthy environment that’s wonderful and inunhealthy environments, you’re damaged and hurt and you can be deprived of openness, which is really a such a crime to the people who are just there with their open mind and open heart. But thank you so much and tell people also where they are going to be able to find your book.
Matthew Remski: 39:10
So the book is being published by Embodied Wisdom Publishing, but the announcements for it will be all over my Facebook page. I’ve, there’s an author’s page and there’s my personal page. But my website homepage is going to have a preorder button for it. It’s just my name is matthewremski.com And it’s March 14th that it’s dropping. And then who knows? There’s a whole storm after that. I don’t know what my life was going to look like after that, so we’ll see. Yeah.
Rachel Bernstein: 39:44
Busy. Yeah, it’ll be, it’ll be and good. And you’re going to, it’d be, you’re going to be hearing a lot more of people’s stories, you know, and it’s good to be prepared for that ahead of time, but it’s really wonderful, you know, it’s a nice thing to not feel that your experience was so sort of terminally unique and that you don’t have to feel isolated with it. It happens.
Matthew Remski: 40:06
And that’s where I just have to thank you again because, because you’re, the sharing of the stories that you do is so profoundly helpful. And it’s part of a kind of a golden age I think in that is dawning in cult studies and research and transparency so you’re a big part of that. Thank you so much for your work.
Rachel Bernstein: 40:24
Thank you. Thank you for your nice words. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Matthew Remski: 40:27
All right. All right. I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks a lot Rachel.
“Those Wounds Are A Kind Of Ink.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 1)
I’ve been an avid follower of Rachel Bernstein’s IndoctriNation podcast for a year now. She’s doing something very unique and healing in the cult-studies sphere: using her therapy and counselling chops to create really intimate and relaxed interviews with survivors and researchers. I’ve learned a ton from it. Please consider supporting her work by subscribing to the podcast via Patreon.
So I was honoured to be invited on as guest, and wasn’t surprised to be as at-ease as her other guests sound. This is the first part of our conversation.
Rachel Bernstein: 01:18
I want to welcome Matthew Remski to the show today. I am so happy to have him on. He and I had been dialoguing back and forth about a project that he is working on that he’s going to talk about, and also about his experiences and that he is really wonderful at doing community education and good prevention work. So it’s an honor to have you on today.
Matthew Remski: 01:41
Thank you so much Rachel. Actually the honor is mine. Your podcast has been really helpful for, so many listeners, but for me personally, it’s been a really healing thing to be able to see how all of the threads tie together. So thank you for all of that.
Rachel Bernstein: 01:57
Oh, you’re welcome. You’re welcome. My pleasure. I’ve been enjoying doing it and so it’s been fun also because then I get to meet people who are doing this kind of work and talk to you also about your own particular experiences. And so as I often start, I know you’re busy with your book and all of that, but what do you do at other times?
Matthew Remski: 02:17
At other times? That’s a good question. What’s new for me is that — actually, this is very new, so it might be premature to say — I have made a commitment to start taking care of myself a little bit more concertedly. Especially after finishing up with this book that’s about to be published in March. It’s taken about three years, and it’s taken a toll. And you know, at a certain point I realized Oh, I’ve really trained myself to sleep no more than four hours at a time. And, and I’m not exercising as much as I should. And, I’m really fulfilled by this work, but it also feels compulsive. And, so yeah, I’ve slowed down a little bit. I’ve decided not to take on any new work for the next two months. I’ve got two months before the launch date. There’s still a bunch of book details to take care of, but I’m not taking on anything new, trying to spend a little bit more time with my family. We have two little boys.
And also just really taking stock of the fact that working in the cult analysis field as I have been doing has been stressful in a number of ways related not just to the material and to the energy that it takes to hear the stories and to begin to put them together and to process, but also how they trigger my own memories. And so that’s been a strange thing to realize that I’ve been doing this work not only to do the work because I think it’s the right thing to do, and because I have some facility with it, but also because it’s been personally meaningful to me and there has been some recovery aspects in there. But also it’s re-triggered in certain ways and actually it does, you know, I might talk about it later, but there’s a project that I’ve actually had to put on hold a little bit because it’s directly related to one of the groups that I was in, from 96 to 2000.
Rachel Bernstein: 04:23
I want to hear your history. Just talking a little bit about that, about being re triggered. Something that I talk to my clients about is taking the material in bite size pieces. You know, just chewing on a little bit, checking in, seeing if you’re okay. Just sort of keeping sure that you have people around. Daytime is probably easier to do reading also just in general when you feel like you might get triggered. But just to stop when you feel like it’s getting to be too much, put it down. You actually have a really nice way of presenting that in the book that I got to.
Matthew Remski: 04:58
Well that’s the thing, isn’t it? This whole section on self care while reading this book, very somber advice. I hope it is useful for readers, but I think it was maybe proofing that section for the third or fourth time that I was like, Oh, I haven’t done any of these things. I do have outside support and I have, you know, I have access to good reality checking, but yeah, it’s when this material becomes a job and something else takes over, self care is hard to negotiate. I’m sure you find that yourself.
Rachel Bernstein: 05:35
Yeah. And I was thinking as you were reading over it and going over these wonderful ideas that you were sharing with other people for how to manage the information and you hadn’t done any of it yourself. I have that a lot when I’m giving sage advice clients and I’m thinking “That’s actually not a bad idea!”
Matthew Remski: 05:52
And it might’ve been something that you actually did a number of years ago and it worked you and we can forget that stuff too.
Rachel Bernstein: 06:01
And also I think the time feels limited. Like we want to use our time for the other, and don’t think about using those things for ourselves cause we’re crafting how to help the other person. But it is a really good opportunity to check in and make sure you’re doing self care along the way. I’m always curious about what prompts people to have their experiences and then turn it into an opportunity for education and prevention and why that was important for you.
Matthew Remski: 06:31
I didn’t decide for it to be important to me. I think it emerged out of a re-adoption of writing practice as a kind of self care practice after, well, a number of years after I left the second group that I was in. In both of the cults I was recruited into, there was a real emphasis placed upon techniques for meditation and contemplation that would empty the mind or somehow rewrite your thoughts with mantras or with the ideology of the group, or that the empty non-conceptual state of whatever-whatever was actually the ideal state for the human being to be in. So that was really valued. And prior to that I had been a compulsive writer from my early teenage years. And one of the biggest realizations of how deeply I was influenced by these two experiences was that I probably stopped writing for a decade.
That’s kind of astonishing for me to think about because writing is not just about content production or research for journalism. For me, it’s also about the creation of an orderly world that I can begin to contemplate with a kind of safety and distance. And so, you know, when I finally started writing again, first of all, I felt blank. And I knew that wasn’t right and I had to… and there was something about the screen too, you know… When I had stopped writing, I had been using a laptop and then when I started, you know, well there’s the laptop and it’s updated, it’s a new version, but it’s still a screen and there’s something very bright and aggressive about the screen that was difficult for me to connect with. When I called up a new document and it was blank, that kind of reinforced this feeling of blankness that I had from the meditation practices and the various cognitive distorting techniques that had been used.
Then I had this — I don’t know how I figured it out… I think actually it was watching my stepdaughter drawing — she’s an incredible artist — and I realized: Oh, I actually want to write with my hand, something material. And I got a big notebook and I began to write that way again. Just sort of personal, internal stuff, but I did it in cursive and there was something about connecting the words together. Is cursive an American word? Connecting the words together, and then I would challenge myself to not let the pen leave the page. And that created a kind of like internal consistency to the fact that I had a voice. And so it started taking off from there.
And then I kind of got back into some of the types of writing that I had done before as a cultural critic and as a theorist. And I did some yoga philosophy as I got into the yoga world. At a certain point when I began realizing that this apparently benign culture was not only totally unregulated, but it was also filled with its own sort of cultic patches. I just started teaching myself how to report on that stuff and I don’t have any journalism training, but I’ve had some really good mentors and I feel like I know how to do a lot of it now. But because writing was always like part of a recovery process for me, it’s not like I could ever say that reporting or doing journalism on cultic dynamics was going to be objective or unbiased from my point of view. Like there’s two things: I can’t extract myself from a material that I cover, but I also realize that that if I did, I think I would amputate content of a lot of it’s passion. I feel like I’m playing a little bit of a line there where I am personally invested in, I am healing wounds by writing about cultic dynamics. But at the same time, those, those wounds are a kind of ink.
And so then the final, the final problem, which may be coming to a resolution or it might be short lived, is that I’m realizing I just don’t do have to do so much of it. I don’t have to do it so fast and I don’t have to keep on top of everything. Yeah.
Rachel Bernstein: 11:44
It’s nice. It’s nice when you realize that, that you can keep kind of a things in balance, kind of a good homeostasis that you don’t have to feel pressured. I like the idea of writing in cursive. I think there are a lot of people of a certain generation who don’t know what that word means, but I think it’s starting to come back.
Matthew Remski: 12:05
Hopefully. And I wanted to write to Janja Lalich about it because she has a whole bit and one of her books about how a recuperative writing can be for the cult survivor and for many of the reasons that I’ve discussed, but I just wanted to flag that little bit for her. I don’t know if she’s heard that before. That there was something kinetic or somatic about it for me as well.
Rachel Bernstein: 12:38
It makes sense. Also the curse of that. It’s this continuity, and that you, I think you want to be able to feel more connected to your story, to you, especially when you’ve been in situations with a lot of meditation and a lot of feeling disconnected and in ways that I’m sure you’re going to talk about.
Matthew Remski: 13:02
Well if you have a beautiful page and you have ink and you’re connecting your letters and your words together, there is a real bias towards “first thought, best thought”. And you know, it’s just really, really easy to use the delete key on the laptop or the desktop. And I think that there’s a discouragement from editing and that was really important because I think I was taught over six years or so and then in the aftermath afterwards to basically distrust everything that I thought,
Rachel Bernstein: 13:32
Okay, and so the healing part for you about being able to get it out and, yes, journaling, writing, also having your information be your information. That no one else has access to it, right? Until you decide that they have access to it in the end. That they’re not going to be able to use it in the same way that it was used before: usually against you or forced out of you. Just being able to have some control over what is your information I think is very important.
Matthew Remski: 13:59
Absolutely. I mean the first high-demand group that I was in was led by a guy who is still around. His name is Michael Roach. I don’t have any problem naming him because I’ve written about him in a number of different places. He’s still doing his thing. People can look it up that part of his community fell apart when one of his students died because, well that’s a long story. But it was severe institutional neglect involved and a failure to care for this person.
But one of the practices that he had us do in this kind of neo-Buddhist set of rituals was to journal, but in a confessional sense. The journaling would be a six times a day that write down your relationship with one of about 200 vows that you had taken. And they’re standard vows, they’re not vows to him, but their vows that he interprets, and some of them are about: Did you think ill of your teacher or did you speak poorly of your colleagues? Or were you basically a critical thinker? And so the writing that I was able to do was confessional, right? So it was kind of like the thing that was precious to me was was actually flipped and inverted, and that had a lasting impact. I think my tendency for a while was to think about primarily what the reader wanted to get from me rather than rather than representing my own, my own internal agency.
Rachel Bernstein: 15:54
Yeah. And that writing is so much about: Are you keeping to the rules and it’s also so formulaic, right? Which is really not how writing should be when it really comes from the heart. But that wasn’t at all about your heart. It was really like you were making sure that you were going over the checklist and doing things right.
Matthew Remski: 16:16
Well, that’s one of the, one of the things, I mean, you said, you say that that’s not about your heart. That’s true. And I think one of the most deceptive things about cults that take on religious content is that they will tell you that it is about your heart, right? I don’t know that the political cult or the psychotherapy calls is able to do that, or the business cult is able to do that and quite as cynical or ironic a way. So your instincts often get scrambled, I think, in these situations is the thing that you are told to do that’s for your own spiritual care is actually the opposite of what you need for spiritual care.
Rachel Bernstein: 17:04
And it happens in almost every group and also the reason for it is turned around also to lower your defenses to doing it if you feel like it’s for your benefit. It also gives you this false sense that your leader is this benevolent person who is helping you get more in touch with you.
Matthew Remski: 17:31
Right. Yeah. Which is something that I believed for, you know, I would say the first year or so of my recruitment into Michael Roach’s group. There was something very personally attractive to me about him. And it had to do with the fact that I think I identified with him as somebody who had, you know, separated off from his family and had completely changed his culture and had basically become fluent in Tibetan, although we’re not quite sure about that. And had created a kind of like alternative fantasy-avoidant life that I admired at first and that, and that gave me a sense of relief from other emotional stresses and relationships. So it was quite a shock to realize that this guy actually isn’t capable of caring for others. Or at least not in a way that isn’t grandiose or self-serving or programmed in some way.
Rachel Bernstein: 18:54
And I think that brings as to this next point about this idea of being able to write about these things with no, you know, really portraying that there’s no blame, no shame that you were saying that if you realize that the person who was the puppeteer basically is someone who has a personality disorder, someone who really has a deficit, someone who’s really a troubled person, then it, it helps take it off of you, right? A lot more where you say: Oh, I got into this well oiled machine of manipulation. I didn’t know what was happening. And, and this is something that can happen to people. And so tell me a little bit about that message, about not feeling shame, not blaming. I’m sure that sensitivity for you probably comes out of having been treated that way or assumptions being made about you and how you were able to turn that around for people, for their perceptions.
Matthew Remski: 19:58
I think that the moment where the penny dropped was in working on this book early on, I interviewed a researcher named Cathleen Mann. And she just said over the phone, she said, you know, “No one joins a cult.” I said, wait, what do you mean by that? And she said, “People delay leaving organizations that misrepresent themselves.” And I can’t remember what the rest of the interview was like because I was just stuck on that. I was like, “Oh deception is the kicker here. It’s the thing that actually really does — I would say from the perpetrator’s side as well because it’s very difficult to the extent to which they’re deceiving themselves, and that’s a deep possibility — but you know, from the victim/survivor standpoint, the fact that there was no defence against you being given credible, wrong stuff.
Like there is no defence against you being falsely impressed by a show of authority. It happens to everybody. The people that I was with in both of these groups came from all walks of life, all levels of education. There was no bullshit detector that these guys couldn’t get around in some way. Now, there was a lot of people who didn’t buy in. Of course they would come a couple of times and they would leave. But for those of us who stayed, we stayed because we were deceived and that utterly deconstructs the shame of the lost time, the sunken costs, the cognitive dissonance that you have to recover from. I think that was a very, very powerful idea.
And then I must’ve, I must’ve cried three or four times reading Dan Shaw’s beautiful book, Traumatic Narcissism. It’s speculative because it’s psychoanalytic and he’s going from personal experience but then reporting on his client reports, but you know his portrayal of the leader as somebody who is utterly terrified that their extraordinarily fragile sense of self is not going to be fed in precisely the way it needs to be in order for them to survive… There was something very tender about that.
But I also find that that’s a private bit of therapy for me too, because as an activist journalist, I don’t want to focus on that too much. Because one of the things that happens with these charismatic characters is that they get all the limelight. I also find that like when I’m studying, when I’m researching Pattabhi Jois, who this book is about, coming out in March, that one of the biggest obfuscating questions to really making it public and driving home the fact that this guy sexually assaulted women for 30 years straight in public, in his yoga classes… people would always say, Well, you know, what was his intention? You know people would say, Well, did he have an erection?, Or: What did he really mean? And I’m like, we’re spending a heck of a lot of time talking about the intentionality of a predator. And not a lot of time at all talking about what the survivors actually have to say.
Dan Shaw’s work has been really powerful for me in relieving the stress of the animosity that I bore towards the two leaders of the groups that I was in. But at the same time, you know, sometimes people have to feel animosity to be for to get free.
Rachel Bernstein: 24:04
Yeah, I think so. Especially after being in situations where you’re not allowed to have anger and resentment and animosity. Where your ability to really protect yourself and have the spectrum of your emotions that are built into your system, but that there happened to be some that threatened that fragile ego of the leader. And so they’re demonized, or you’re diagnosed as having something wrong with you if you exhibit them or feel them. All the more reason for you to be able to then share this proof that you were a free person by saying, This really pisses me off. And I have right to feel that way. It’s a gauge about how wrong it was and how something did happen to you that was not okay. And I think it’s a very important thing to have that register.
Matthew Remski: 24:59
There’s a story that’s coming to mind that is actually really beautiful and to me as part of this process of being able to be angry. So the bare bones of my history from 96 to 2000, I’m in Michael Roach’s group, and then as you know, not uncommon with people who are in high-demand groups, when that was severed, because I realized this person is not who they say they are and they are manipulative, and all of the things that I could see very clearly all at once. I had nothing. I had my relationship. I didn’t have a career, I didn’t have money. I had a friend back in Vermont who had said, Oh, Endeavor academy in Wisconsin was where I had one of the most profound experiences of my life. I can’t remember where I phoned him from, but it was like a pay phone somewhere. And I said, How do I find this place? And, you know, a few months later I’m in another group.
That goes till 2003 or so, and then like yoga was something that was just sort of around. The boom started to happen in around 2003, 2004. And as I got out of the second group, you know, here’s this like unregulated industry that’s kind of related to the spiritualities that I’ve been studying and you know, you can get a training in it and 200 hours and you know, open a yoga studio. And so I was like, okay, well that’s, that’s what I’m going to do. And not knowing at all how much I would have yet to learn of course. When I started getting back into my own body, my own flesh through the yoga postures and breathing, this was great, and you know, I didn’t really see it first that this is an environment in which this stuff happens as well. That’s part of the reason that it took me so long to begin to see cultic dynamics in the yoga world, because I had come to yoga as a recovery phase.
But one of the things that I did is I got more and more into yoga and Indian wisdom culture as I started studying things like Ayurveda and Jyotish or Vedic astrology. And I had a teacher, who is a peer of mine. He’s my age. We share a background. We share a lot of characteristics and what I’ve realized since is that he too was coming out of high-demand groups at the same time and in this thrust towards: Let me find something authentic for myself, within this same field…
He had like highly educated himself in Sanskrit and in a number of texts and he had become a really good independent scholar of Indian wisdom culture. But also a very devotional person, and that’s where we were different. Our relationship was very close and then there was friction between us. And then I started publishing not well-researched pieces, but \ blog pieces on the creepy feeling that I would get when I went to a particular yoga ashram. There’s a restaurant here in Toronto called Annapurna that has been open since like 1970-whatever where devotees of Sri Chinmoy work for pennies on the dollar, a serving very low protein food, but smiling like all the time. And I think I wrote something snarky about Annapurna.
And so my friend, this guy who was teaching me, he was just incensed like: These, are good people. They haven’t hurt you. They’re not doing anything wrong to you. You are turning them into children. Why are you so insulting? And we were standing on the street and I said Look, there’s something off here. There’s some power dynamic that is not right. There is something that feels wrong to me.
And the argument escalated and it was like, it was one of the most beautiful June days I can ever remember in my life. And this is a friend, and it’s hard to make friends after you come out of high-demand groups. And I had made this friend and we were yelling at each other at the top of our lungs on the street corner, under this beautiful shining sun. And then it was just, it was like, Screw you! and Screw YOU!
And then I got on my bike and when I got home I had a mystically quiet, still, warm experience of: Oh, I can be angry about what happened to me, and I don’t have to believe anything that anybody wants me to believe anymore. And I’m not beholden to anybody and I’m just here. I remember it was almost like… I was wondering whether people ever converted to being atheists and they felt some mystical experience, right? Where all of this stuff that they had formerly believed in just kind of melted away. And along with all of the feelings of guilt and shame that kept them trying to appease whoever they were serving at the time, you know. But there was something about the rage, under the sky. We could have been locked up, right? And so there was something about that surge of rage that I was able to share with a friend.
Rachel Bernstein: 32:06
I think it’s very, very powerful for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s also cumulative. so sometimes you kind of deposit it on a friend really from a lot of different things. But a friend could say, Oh, whoa, you know, slow down, sparky. Let’s, okay, let’s try to figure out where this is coming from. But I think that, you know, what is really important about that, I mean, it’s also ironic that he said that you’re talking about them like children because Sri Chinmoy I actually called his followers boys and girls, and he was the father. At the same time being able to have your anger. Then when you were saying that you wonder if people who become atheists have that moment: I think anytime you have something that feels like an epiphany that comes with this openness to a new idea that also comes with relief. Yes. You’re going to have that moment that feels transcendent, and feels really good in the way that it connects with our brains and the chemicals that are released. So yes, I, I’m glad that you had that. Sounds like it was a really good, important and kind of watershed moment.
Matthew Remski: 33:21
It was absolutely a watershed moment. There was, as I said, this falling away of the guilt and shame that kept me in an appeasing or deferential relationship to this whole series of structures. But then also this sense as I sat in my study and this sun was coming through the window that I was okay. Like I didn’t have to work at this internal self anymore. Like I was just okay, No more mantras, no more studying, no more trying to figure out the patterns of the stars. No more trying to hone my intuition so that it could mirror that of the charismatic master. I just didn’t have to do it. It was very relieving. Then there’s other cycles of stress that started up as part as part of the recovery process.
Rachel Bernstein: 34:23
And then the freedom, also stress that comes with a certain amount of freedom that you are not used to, that has its own stressors that I think people are not quite ready for, even though it’s better to be free than not. But still, it’s good to have a little prep for how that feels at first. I’m just curious also before this Michael Roach’s group, so just in like little bite-size piece, tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your family and kind of what was leading you potentially into your first group. And then I want to certainly hear more about the experiences that prompted your book.
Matthew Remski: 35:03
I grew up here in Toronto, middle class background. I think a very defining feature of my childhood was a very retrograde orthodox Catholic boy’s school education that featured a lot of physical and emotional abuse. I think that one way that I’ve very naturally normalized it was through spiritualizing it. So I remember associating very clearly the gore of Catholic iconography with a sense of the necessity of suffering. That was a very early equation for me. There was something too about, as boys, we were all to sing and to make music. So it was Saint Michael’s Choir School here in Toronto. And one of the things that I think also made its way into my wiring was this connection between aesthetic beauty and pain, or aesthetic beauty and cruelty. Pretty typical Catholic stuff, but I think ramped up in a way for somebody who grew up in the 70s that I think was kind of odd. Especially in Canada for the most part Catholic schools just weren’t like that. This was a real throwback. So that kind of set me apart.
My mother had master’s degree in English and was an English teacher in high school. And so I was surrounded by, you know, great books, and I read, Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen way too early. And then I heard him sing “Joan of Arc” when I was like 15 years old at three o’clock in the morning on the CBC. Whenever that album was released, with Jennifer Warnes. And you know, here’s this like male voice talking about consuming the heroine in bursts of love and light. I would like to blame the late Leonard Cohen for further spiritualizing or rationalizing my Catholic ideology. Because, because that was, that was a really potent moment for me where it was not just that it was virtuous to associate beauty with pain, it was also aesthetic, it was also beautiful. I was early to leave home. I went through probably a number of bouts of undiagnosed clinical depression and then I had a series of idiopathic major seizures over the period of about six months when I was 21 or 22. Um, and I associated those seizures, uh, two with a kind of mystical experience. This is something I’d love to talk to Yuva Laor sometime about because I know he does a lot of study on the relationship between the charismatic figure and religiosity and epilepsy.
Rachel Bernstein: 38:58
If anyone wants to study temporal lobe epilepsy and what it does. I mean it is fascinating.
Matthew Remski: 39:07
It’s funny, listening to your conversation with him reminded me of Geschwind Syndrome because I don’t have a diagnosis but I map pretty closely on to two of the three common characteristics. And one is hyper religiosity, but it’s not of the type that is like devotional, but you know the person will present like an outside interest, intellectual interest in things religious. Then the other thing is hypergraphia or nonstop writing. So this is a period of six months or so that the seizures took place and hey haven’t happened since, but something happened during that time. It was also a time of profound social isolation. And that’s kind of the bridge into, you know, into the group for sure. Thin social ties, living away from home in a different country.
TO BE CONTINUED…