“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…