When a friend told me about a new Netflix show that followed the life of a fictional ex-cult member, I felt uneasy. I’d already lived through a cult experience in real life, and then re-lived it by writing my book, Girl at The End of the World. Surviving that stuff was more than enough, thanks.
Still, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt —which portrays a 29-year-old woman adjusting to life in mainstream society after spending 15 years in an underground bunker—intrigued me. Then I happened to catch a few jokes from the show on Facebook. Wait, it’s a comedy? Created by Tina Fey? Okay, fine. I’ll watch one episode.
Confession: I binge-watched the whole season in one weekend.
I laughed. I cried. I shouted: Yes! That’s exactly what life was like after a cult! But after the initial excitement, I grew frustrated, realizing that the only reason the show’s star can live up to the “unbreakable” title and theme song is because she isn’t real.
In many ways, Kimmy’s trials and triumphs reminded me of what it was like to leave the cult I’d lived in for 25 years, a fundamentalist Christian group founded by my grandfather. The show was reminiscent enough of my own experience that part of me felt the urge to stockpile canned goods again. But like Kimmy and the rest of the “mole women” who escaped with her, I still have remind myself: I’m not in the cult anymore. Instead of ransacking the grocery store, I sat down to write this essay.
Though I never lived in an underground bunker, I grew up sequestered from mainstream society. We didn’t own a TV, and I couldn’t to listen to secular music—even most Christian music was banned. I wasn’t allowed to have friends outside the church or do anything that interfered with our intense church meeting schedule. Like Kimmy, I was thrilled to finally experience life outside a cult. I couldn’t wait to do everything I’d missed out on. At long last I was gonna be normal! But as Kimmy’s new roommate informs her: “Escaping it is not the same as making it.”
For those of us who left isolationist, abusive, or restrictive religious environments, “making it” in the outside world is often much harder than we expected. There is so much to learn and so much to unlearn. It’s disconcerting to realize that even though we’ve left the cult, the cult hasn’t left us. And many of us need therapy, support groups, and an ongoing commitment to “deprogram” harmful patterns of thinking. Even with a super-positive attitude like Kimmy’s, adjusting to mainstream America was bewildering.
One of the first things that astonished me about life In The Outside World was how everyone was in touch with their feelings. They instinctively knew how to identify a whole range of colorful and complicated emotions in themselves—and others. This freaked me out. In the cult, there were only two acceptable feelings: “Rejoicing in the Lord!” and “Denying Myself” (read: trying to rejoice).
It was so hard for me to understand my own feelings that when I watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt I hollered with laughter when Kimmy’s bunker-mate said: “Yeah, I’m doing good. Sometimes I get mad for no reason. Like the other day I smashed one of those Kia Sorrentos.” Yep. That is so life after a cult. You’re alive, you’re okay—maybe—but then you have these inexplicable bouts of severe negativity, and you don’t know why. It took me two years unpredictable, unwieldy emotions before I asked for help in therapy.
Living in a cult can also skew our ability to gauge and build healthy relationships with other people. When Kimmy confesses her love to her coworker, he backs away saying: “You thought I was in love with you after I like kissed you twice?” Even though I was already married when I left the cult, I related to this because, like Kimmy, I was forever misreading social cues and attaching greater significance to them than other people did.
I thought if someone wanted to hang out with me, we would be best friends. I didn’t know how to keep things casual. I had to restrain the urge to preach the gospel to strangers on airplanes. And I was a huge sucker for salespeople—mistaking their friendliness for, well, friendliness. I remember feeling betrayed when I realized one saleswoman didn’t actually want to be my friend—she wanted to sell me kitchen gadgets.
However, as much as I loved Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for portraying a story that captures elements of the life of a survivor, I can’t ignore that as satire, it trivializes aspects of the real, lived experiences of cult survivors. Most of us have had major repair work to do—our lives were broken.
Are we really supposed to believe that all it takes to overcome a traumatic past is a relentlessly upbeat attitude like Kimmy’s? Ironically, that sounds eerily similar to a shaming message I heard in the cult: Smile! Count your blessings! All things work together for good! Can’t find the good? Try Harder! (And, let’s be real, if not written for TV laughs, a survivor of that kind of kidnapping would have staggered out of the bunker hauling six to ten kids and a mouth full of rotten teeth. Not to mention wrecked health and PTSD.)
Still, I want more of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But instead of “Kimmy Has a Birthday!” I want to see “Kimmy Has a Breakdown.” I want to see Kimmy waking up one morning all exhausted and depleted and wondering why she feels so depressed. Too much to ask of a comedy show? Maybe.
For now I’ll be content with episodes like the one where Kimmy falls under the spell of a fitness instructor at “Spirit Cycle.” Her infatuation is short lived because like any ex-cult member, Kimmy can spot unhealthy group dynamics a mile away. I loved seeing her realize that cults don’t just exist in Durnsville, Indiana, but also right in the middle of New York City. It was inspiring to watch her confront the Exercise Cult Leader and tell the truth. That’s the kind of courage we all need, isn’t it?
That’s the kind of courage that makes us unbreakable.
Elizabeth Esther is the author ofGirl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future. Her second book, releasing in 2016, is called Spiritual Sobriety: How a Religious Addict Got Sober through Ordinary Grace. You can find her online at www.elizabethesther.com, and on Twitter at @elizabethesther.
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