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The Shame and Trauma of Spiritual Abuse: Karen’s Story

April 2, 2013 • MIND CONTROL

Spiritual abuse refers to psychological harm inflicted by religious authorities that causes severe emotional trauma.  It involves the use of fear and guilt to control a person’s mind and prevent them from questioning the religious system of beliefs.  This type of abuse can be every bit as devastating to a person’s psyche as sexual abuse, and the effects often linger on for a lifetime.  I recently had the opportunity to interview Karen, an adult survivor of spiritual abuse who was raised in a cult-like religious tradition.  In this two part interview, we will delve into what it was like growing up in such a highly controlled environment, and how it impacted her as an adult. Perhaps her resilience can inspire strength in others with similar experiences. Here is part one of her two part interview.

When did you come to realize that the religion you were raised in was abusive?  Is this something you knew early on?

I wouldn’t say that I knew it early on.  If you’re in a religion that’s cult-like you tend to believe what your parents believe. So everybody around you believes the same thing and that becomes your reality.  I think once I realized that I was a lesbian I started to question.  They were telling me I was a sinner but then I couldn’t figure out why I felt the way I did.

How do you define “cult-like” and what did they say you’re a sinner for doing?

To me, cult-like is a religion where the ministers tell you exactly what to think and feel.  You believe everything he says.  There were a lot of rules, like no television and women could not wear makeup or pants.  There was also a belief system that everyone else was wrong but this religion was right.  You could not question the minister or the rules.  Some people believed that if you question the minister you will go to hell.

So, if you brought up a doubt to a parent then it would be a sin?

Yes.  There was no free thinking.  I wouldn’t go so far to call it a cult; it was just cult-like.  You’re afraid to think beyond that religion and beyond the rules.

Was it communal living?

No. People functioned in the community.  Some churches would have their own schools at the church.  I lived in a small town and I attended regular school.  We just went to church a lot.  The religion has all of the traits of a cult except communal living.

What are some of the other traits?

Well, not being able to question the ministers was one.  They also believed that you have to speak in tongues in order to go to heaven.  If you can’t speak in tongues you go to hell.  Also, we were not exposed to a lot of outside influences.  They would rather us read the Bible and nothing else.

Was there a perception that the world was sinful?

Actually, yes.  Everything else was evil and not to be trusted. Only people within the religion were to be trusted.  I was taught that everybody else was going to hell.  You thought everybody else was basically evil.  We were also told that if we did not tell others about “the truth” then we were responsible for them going to hell, because we had “the truth”.

Did you ever have doubts or questions while growing up?

I questioned off and on as I was a kid.  In Sunday school they told us Cain and Abel were two of the first people, but Cain went off and found a wife, so there had to be other people out there.  As I got older I questioned this literal interpretation and was informed that “only the half has been told.”  I didn’t know where to get the other half.  I never felt good about questioning until I went off to college.

What were some of the other rules you questioned?

Well, they had a lot of rules about sex.  You could only have sex in the missionary position and you could not have oral sex.  It was against the Bible and you went straight to hell.  That was an understood rule and the reason they thought homosexuality was wrong.  For one you just don’t have an attraction for a female if you’re a female.  You just don’t.

How did knowing you were attracted to females impact your religious life?

In my mid twenties I started praying 24/7 for these feelings to be taken away.  I prayed for six or seven years straight because I thought I was going to hell.  I was so afraid.  That’s another cult thing, being fear-based.  It starts when you’re a child.

Can you share an example of how fear was instilled in you as a child?

When I was nine I was sent to a camp where you went to church 24 hours a day, except when you slept.  We went there for a week.  They really wanted to make you afraid so that you would speak in tongues and get the Holy Spirit.  There were about a thousand of us.  One night they got us all in the tabernacle where we worshipped.  We were just singing songs when suddenly they shut off all the lights and this spotlight comes flying over us.  Then there was a guy dressed as the devil on a lawnmower but it was decorated like a train.  So, when you’re 8 or 9 you’re thinking that’s  the freakin’ devil.  He was coming down through the aisles pulling kids onto the hell train; taking them to hell.

Where did they go?  How many could they fit on the train?

Not very many.  The image was so horrifying for everybody that once they came through they started screaming at us and telling us we’re all going straight to hell if we don’t come down to the front and speak in tongues.  Then all night long the kids were screaming at the top of their lungs because they were so terrified.  They were screaming for their moms.  All we could think about was hell.

Part 2: The conclusion to Karen’s story

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Thomas Fewer

Thomas Fewer is the founder, director and primary therapist at the New Orleans Counseling Center. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Ohio State University and completed his Master’s degree in Counselor Education at the University of New Orleans. He is a Nationally Certified Counselor that is licensed in the states of Louisiana and Arizona. Thomas has worked with clients in outpatient, inpatient and community settings. He has extensive training in depth psychology, which focuses on treating the root causes of issues rather than only the symptoms.

Thomas’ column, MIND CONTROL, will be available on the first Monday of each month. If you have questions for Thomas or are interested in counseling, he can be reached at

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