Ella: From Burlington, Vermont, this is Ella Guinan here with Zach Falls and Zee Shkurina.
For today’s show, we’re talking about cults.
I think people generally tend to think of cults as these bizarre groups – who live very removed lives far away from civilized society. But.. what about those cultish groups that are hiding in plain sight?
Our very own, Sarah Lewis, is today’s first guest. Sarah is the former president of The University of Vermont’s Pi Beta Phi chapter.
She talks about instances when Pi Phi’s arbitrary rules made her feel more like she was part of a cult – than a sorority.
Our second guest is Kristoff, a former Jehovah’s Witness.
In this episode.. we’ll explore what sort of behaviors cause an otherwise “normal” organization to be considered cultish, and how much of an impact conformity and groupthink have on these organizations.
Zach: Fraternity and Sorority Life has been coming under fire recently across the country for behaviors that align very similarly with cults. From secret rituals to hazing practices, these organizations are right under our nose engaging in behavior, that if described under a different label, would be considered wrong and along the same lines as extremist groups. So to get an inside look at what happens behind closed, Greek doors and what happens when you suddenly find yourself being removed from your sisterhood, I met with a former member of UVM Sorority life, Sarah Lewis. For the first three years of her college career, she was involved with Pi Beta Phi. Until, well… you’ll find out.
Zach: But sororities seem overwhelmingly, almost exaggeratedly, positive from the outside. Therefore, her experience was not entirely negative from the start…
SL: I’m from Illinois, so obviously Vermont is a really far away place for me and I didn’t know a soul coming to UVM. So I was trying to join a lot of organizations that would get me a lot of friends, and mainly a lot of female friends, because that’s something that I’m not that natural at picking up on myself. So I joined an a cappella group and then went through sorority recruitment. And I thought that I would only end up being in one and ended up being in both. So, I was surrounded by a lot of female attention.
Zach: But suspicion started to sink in early on that maybe something was wrong…
SL: There’s a lot of things looking back that were, like, crazy to me and unfair. But I was so young and you’re so desperate for friends and attention and love and a home on this campus that you just let it kind of go by.
Zach: Like any good sorority girl, Sarah wanted to get involved in any way she could. So as soon as the first round of executive board applications went out, she gladly filled them out and turned them in. Applying for the maximum amount of positions one person could, she went through the interview process and anxiously awaited a response. She had good grades, showed up to events, and felt like she had proven herself as an exemplary member of the organization. She was ready to sell her soul to Pi Phi… but the news she received was not what she had expected…
SL: Um, and I got a call five minutes after the window that you were supposed to get a call that you got a position. So, it was already late, and I just accepted “Oh, I didn’t get a position on exec. That’s, that’s fine. Like, maybe next year.” And I got a call from a girl who told me, that the position I had been slated for was Vice President of Finance. Which I did not apply for, which I did not go through the interview process for, I did not show any interest in it, and I also didn’t know anything about it. Like I had no idea how to balance the finances and budget for an entire sorority.
SL: And so she had this phone call and my initial reaction was just utter shock. Like how did this happen? I didn’t even think that I was going to be offered this position. And the second was kind of anger and sadness because then she said, “You have 60 seconds to say yes or no or we are going to have to pass it onto the next girl.” And so I, like, freaked out and I was like “Well I don’t know anything about this position but I really wanna be on exec, and I really wanna prove myself so I guess that I’m gonna do it.” And it was kind of this moment where I realized later on as I was balancing my sorority budget and filling out checks, like, I didn’t want to do this and I felt such pressure that if I had said no, no one would have liked me and I would have been like the negative talk of the sorority and then I would have shot my chances at ever having a position and ever being something in the sorority.
Zach: This was just the tip of the iceberg.
SL: Then there’s a lot of things in sorority life that are not fair and are, kind of arbitrary. And those are things like they tell you what to post on social media. They tell you what you can and cannot post on social media. They tell you, like, what photos are okay, what things are okay to wear, what attitudes when you’re out in public are acceptable, and what aren’t. And I’m a very straight and narrow rule follower, so it was never an issue for me. But I had so many friends get in massive amounts of trouble for their being a beer can in the background of an Instagram photo that wasn’t even their beer can. Or there’s a rule that if you’re a new member, you can’t go to parties or be seen in public with older members until you’re done with your pledging process. And my big sister in the sorority got in trouble because a new member was in the background of a party photo that she didn’t even know was in the background, they didn’t say two words to each other at the event but now they were both going to get in trouble because there was proof that they were in the same room.
Zach: But still after all of those red flags, Sarah felt inspired to continue to dedicate herself to the chapter in more ways than just signing the checks and creating the budgets.
SL: I decided to apply to be president because my big sister in the sorority had been president and I just kind of felt like, ‘Okay, it’s my duty to fill her shoes and make her proud.” And I did. I got the position and I accepted and that was that.
Zach: But soon Sarah was introduced to a higher power she had not been introduced to before… Headquarters.
SL: There’s the big higher power above us all which is headquarters. And headquarters is divided into regions based on where you are- so we were in the Northeast region and we had this woman named Missy. And she was just heartless is the best way I can describe her. She had no human emotions, she wanted to make decisions that were strictly rule-based and she did not care which members went down in her path.
And so I was kind of her voice to the UVM Pi Phi because she was speaking to me and I had to speak to them. And so I had to have a lot of tough conversations with girls and hurt people’s feelings and make them cry because Missy basically gave me scripts of what to say during these meetings and it was really tough. I ended so many phone calls with Missy bawling my eyes out- I would never cry to her because I knew that obviously she was a robot and if I started crying she would kind of fuel power off of that and just be, like, more mean to me.
Zach: Dealing with Missy was a necessary evil, but matters were made worse whenever conflict seemed to arise. Conflicts such as not being able to get 18 women to volunteer to live in the sorority house.
SL: Missy was having no wiggle room. I was saying these rooms are too small, we really shouldn’t have two girls in one room period, maybe we could lower the quota down from 18 to 16 or even 14 and I don’t think that this is fair, and girls aren’t even interested, girls want to live on campus or in an apartment- how am I supposed to tell a girl that’s already signed a lease that she now has to live in house? Because Missy kept just telling me, “You have to force people to live in, you have to force people to live in.”
So I was having conversations with these girls that were balling their eyes out saying “I’ve already signed a lease, I can’t afford two homes and I will drop Pi Phi, I will quit Pi Phi if you force me to live in house. So Missy, it was so easy for her because she was so removed, she wasn’t having these conversations with these young women and watching them cry.
Zach: Sarah’s story takes a turn when she decides to attend Pi Phi convention over the summer before her senior year. Along with another member of her chapter and an Alumni Advisor, the three women arrive in St. Louis with high hopes and full spirits only to be met with a warning from Missy that the Region 1 Advisors wanted to have a meeting…
SL: And so, we had this meeting and it was Missy and this woman named Michelle. Who I thought Missy was the devil incarnate, and I was incorrect, it’s Michelle. So the two of them were sitting us down and talking about housing and basically came to the conclusion that since the house was not full and since I was president, I needed to live in the house another year.
But at this point, I had already signed a lease for an apartment and I had already fulfilled my Pi Phi requirement for living in the house for an entire year. And so I obviously pushed back, and I said that’s not fair how come every other woman in this chapter either doesn’t live in at all or is only expected to live in one year? And I’m suddenly being forced a 2nd year against my will when I’ve already signed a lease, I can’t get out of it, I can’t afford both, I don’t understand why after all that I’ve given to this chapter blood, sweat and tears, I’m the one that’s going to take the fall for this.
And they basically said you have two weeks to tell us if you’re going to live in or not. Because if you’re not, we are going to find a replacement for president.
Zach: Sarah spent the next two weeks digging through old emails and Pi Phi communications to find incriminating evidence that what was happening to her was unjust.
SL: I found emails that basically were saying that the whole housing crisis was not my fault, it was the president before me’s fault. And so I thought I hit the jackpot. I got it. Like, I have so much dirt on these women that there’s no way that they could force me to live in house now.
Zach: Two weeks went by and just as promised, Sarah received an email asking what she was planning to do. But, as we all know, nothing possibly could have changed. Pleading to keep her position, Sarah was met with the simple words from Michelle- “I’m going to give you a call in two days at this time.”
SL: At this point I was living in Boston for the summer working at an internship, I walked home one day, I had like five minutes to just sit until Michelle gave me a call. And Michelle said “Hi Sarah, this is Michelle, I just wanted to let you know that we are formally resigning you from your presidency.” And I fought so hard, kicking and screaming with all of the emails I had and all of the proof I had and I kept saying “I’m being discriminated against, and I don’t understand why, can you please just tell me why?” And all she kept saying is, “You’re not living in house, so you’re being removed.”
SL: And the one thing that I kept saying is that the sorority has the core values of honor and respect for your sisters and sincere friendship and I’m not being treated with any of those values right now. And I signed up, I’ve been paying every semester to have those values be given to me from my fellow sisters and you are NOT doing that right now and you are not even trying to. And she just basically said, “Do you have anything else to say? Because this conversation is over.”
*PAUSE OR MUSIC SHIFT*
SL: I swallowed my tongue and I said goodbye and I hung up the phone and at that exact moment I decided to resign my membership all together. So I crafted this big, kind of, letter and I posted it in our Pi Phi Facebook group. And I explained everything, I said this isn’t what I wanted, this isn’t anything I thought was going to happen, I don’t want you guys to think I’m abandoning you but I am quite literally being forced out of this position and out of this chapter. I don’t feel respected by these women- I don’t understand why these 40 year old women with children and husbands and families and jobs, they’re not being paid to do this for Pi Phi, they’re just doing this for fun- I don’t understand why these women are taking the time out of their days and their childrens’ lives to bully a 21 year old girl they’ve known for a month.
Zach: Tensions were high and emotions were flying, but Sarah knew she was making the right decision.
SL: And so, I was just so outraged and angered but felt really peaceful at the same time that I was absolutely doing the right thing by getting out of there. And by picking up my bags and leaving before I did something stupid.
Because part of me considered, okay, well, what kind of jobs can I get so I can afford both places and will my parents help me chip in if I promise to pay them back later on? And so, I was willing to alter my life in such a drastic unnecessary way for these women that were not even willing to give me the time of day to explain to me why they weren’t treating me with respect.
And so it was wild and that’s just kind of what happened and I… The whole group, uh, commented on that Facebook post with such love and support for me, and then, a few months later, I’m only friends with maybe two or three of them. So, I understood that they felt bad for me, but they’re still so brainwashed by the system that now they can’t even say hi to me on campus because all they know is what Missy then went back and told them which I’m sure was that Sarah doesn’t care about Pi Phi and Sarah wasn’t willing to do this for this organization and so she had to be removed.
Zach: Her own sisters suddenly wanted nothing to do with her.
SL: Yep. It’s really easy to give words of encouragement over Facebook. So I think that they all knew that what had happened to me was not right, but all that they were willing to do was, kind of, give me words of encouragement to move on, by myself.
Zach: Even one of her allies, the adult Alumni Advisor who had been present at the meeting at convention and knew all about the phone call refused to stand up for what was right.
SL: All that she said, pretty much, was “Have a nice life.” She had the power to stand up for me, to tell them that it was worth keeping me, to backfire against the discrimination. And she didn’t. Because she is afraid, everybody is afraid, to lose Pi Phi in a way that’s kind of crazy to me. And now I guess I understand because I suppose I would have more friends in Pi Phi if I was still in it, but obviously, I also weeded out a lot of fake friends in the process. So, it’s crazy to me that even a 30-year old woman is so terrified to piss off this organization which she is not even in it anymore, she’s just a volunteer that’s doing it in her free time. So it’s definitely brainwashing.
Zach: The whole sorority was convinced to share the same brain, controlled by women at headquarters and enforced by the fear of punishment for breaking the rules.
SL: You know, it’s crazy, because you’re a group of friends first and foremost. Or I guess that’s what you’re supposed to be, you’re supposed to be sisters. So when you give one student the authority to actually punish another peer, it’s crazy the amount of backstabbing but then also conformity that you get from that. The ability we’re giving these women to play God in these little organizations, so yeah, it’s so easy to have groupthink. Because they outline the rules for you. You sign a form that says I agree to these bylaws and this constitution of Pi Beta Phi and if you break those rules, they actually have the power to do shit to you. I don’t… (trailed off laughter)
Zach: An experience that started out so positive and uplifting, quickly turned into the biggest mistake of her life. But did Sarah regret the journey altogether?
SL: *sigh* Yes, I would say I regret joining at this point. I know that if I hadn’t joined, there are some friends I have now that I love dearly that I might not have ever met. But I also know, that from being in Pi Phi, I neglected a lot of relationships that could have been stronger. And could have maybe been stronger than the ones I got out of Pi Phi in the first place. And would have supported me way better, would not have held anything against me, would not have given me these standards of rules that if I didn’t follow, I would be ostracized. So that, it, really hurts when I think back about okay, what did I lose from being in Pi Phi? I lost maybe having better friendships elsewhere.
And also, I regret a lot of feelings I got from being in Pi Phi of superiority and of feeling like I’m in the “in crowd.” But that I’m paying to be in the in crowd. For what? To feel like I have friends and to go to parties sometimes and to be able to say that I’m in Pi Phi? It wasn’t, in the grand scheme of things, worth it. There were positives that came out of it and I think this experience of being kicked out and having to kind of, suddenly, be alone, gave me so much insight in my life and to the strength that I have within me. But, I could have forgone the whole experience altogether I think.
Zach: It was becoming very evident that these organizations were conducting in shady behavior, but I wanted to know if Sarah would go as far as to admit they resembled cults in any way…
SL: I would absolutely consider sororities cults. Because there’s secrets and ceremonies that go on that are very cult-ish. That obviously you don’t get to hear about, or talk about, because every member is sworn to secrecy that if you say something about this, there’s no questions asked, you will be kicked out. And it’s creepy, that idolization that some of the members have. I know that, like, in Pi Phi, the seniors are gods.
And again, the women in these remotes headquarters are even more like god figures because you don’t even see them, they just rule your life. These forty year old women, who are sitting in their home office, sending these hateful emails to college students about rules and regulations. It’s crazy. And you don’t ever get to, or it’s rare, I guess, that you get to put a face to that name, but you know that what they say is the law. And that’s creepy and cult-y.
Zach: So there you have it. Fraternities and Sororities are the cults that get away with everything under the disguise of being positive, philanthropic, and popular. When in reality, they are consistently hiding skeletons in their closets…
Ella: It’s interesting how many parallels can be drawn between Sarah’s story, and the story Kristoff is about to share with us. The women in headquarters completely disregarded the values they claim to emulate, when they forcibly removed Sarah.
Listen, as Kristoff reveals – similar to Sarah – the utter hypocrisy that lies below the surface of his group. A group that hides its cult-like behavior in plain sight.
Zee: Jehovah’s Witnesses are members of a Christian religious movement. In 2017, the group reported an average global monthly membership of approximately 8.2 million people.
The organisation is governed by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania corporation, which has its headquarters in New York. It is the main legal entity used worldwide to direct, administer and disseminate doctrines.
Jehovah’s Witnesses base their beliefs only on the text of the Bible and ignore “mere human speculations or religious creeds”. Members reject what they see as the sinful values of the secular world and maintain a degree of separation from non-believers, whom they call “worldly people”.
Over the years, a number of allegations of child abuse have emerged against the organization. A number of former members have come out with stories on emotionally and physically abusive practices in the sect. These stories point to something eerie in one of the largest religious organizations in the world. Is it time to take a closer look?
My name is Zee Shkurina. I want our listeners to meet Kristoff, a man with an eye-opening story about his experience with the organization.
K: I’m originally from Poland. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness by my family. My wife and her whole family are, were in the organization as well. That’s how we met actually. My father was a, was considered a matchmaker. It’s not really like an arranged marriage. What he basically did was – he introduced families to different families, and then– And there were no like official arrangements made.
But there were say like hopes of connecting families. My dad basically introduced couples, just like any other group would. And that’s what happened with me and my wife, that’s how we met. And when I was growing up I, I also had high hopes of becoming a matchmaker, just like my dad. The main idea was bringing joy and happiness to young adults such as myself and my wife at the time. And I really found the whole idea of matchmaking very romantic.
K: I’ve never been present at like the official high ranking meetings. But I know that her father was in there, so was my dad. And I guess that’s how that happened.
K: Basically it’s all about building hierarchy. So the higher you are, then you’re – it’s not like a rule, but it’s– Well, we can say it’s a rule of thumb. That if you’re of high ranking, then your wife and like the connections you have are also of high ranking in the organization.
K: You get certain privileges. You get the respect and the reputation. So once we gather to either read the Bible or– And like any other events. Everyone knows their place. That’s how I’d put it. So the higher you are, the more reputation you have, the more respect you have. And it just goes on from there.
*play some short music clip before transition
Zee: Even though Kristoff and his wife had a high standing in the group, the next part of their story was enough for them to question their religion and discover answers they didn’t even know existed.
K: Three years ago my wife had admitted to me that she had a secret that she’s been withholding for– From since she was about eight, maybe nine years old. And she kept it to herself because of– Well there were, were a lot of reasons.
K: Once she told me, we both tried to– tried to figure a way of how to leave the organization at a certain time. But we knew that that would have it’s consequences, obviously – as any religious organization would. And – but yeah, before she told me I was convinced that it was the perfect religion, the perfect – it was what I was meant to do, and what we – me and my wife were meant to follow. But once that got out, I – that kind of crashed and burned.
K: she opened my eyes and kind of – I guess you could say. “Shattered my pink glasses.” So reality became fake, and I actually saw what was actually happening in the organization. Which prompted me to dig deeper and deeper – and the deeper I dug, the more came out that maybe wasn’t so obvious before. Because before we just believed in what we were told.
K: As my wife and I found out some of the most disturbing elements of the religion. The organization’s abuse of policies. We kind of knew it while we were growing up. But I don’t know? Once – since you’ve grown up into it, and it doesn’t really seem like a big problem and it seems like that’s the normal thing to do. That’s what normally happens.
And the thing is – once you’re baptized, you pledge yourself to the organization for life. And if you ever decide to leave – your close friends, family – everyone you’ve known through the organization, they basically– They’re basically ordered to ignore you, like erase you from their life – from their life forever. I think you kids call it “ghosting.”
Zee: Someone who commits a serious sin can be “disfellowshipped”. This involves being shunned by the congregation, which for most members includes their immediate family.
K: It was pretty hard. Once my wife and I managed to leave the community, even our families – our very dearest and closest friends. Everyone we knew completely erased us. And I don’t know? It was – it just basically, it was all the more reason to move away from where we lived. Because basically we had nothing there that was holding us back. And yeah, it was extremely painful at first. And it may sound trivial, but when your whole world revolves around a certain group of people – yeah you kind of– I don’t know? It’s – it was hard to go through.
K: my wife and I are– Well, we’re fairly open about our past. And basically it started off when she was a little girl. I think she was about maybe eight or nine? It all began with her father getting drunk, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Because by – if you follow the rules, then we don’t– Well the organization doesn’t tolerate drinking or dancing for that matter.
And yeah so once he would get drunk, which I assume a lot of the members did – a lot of the members didn’t follow the rules. And especially if you’re that way high up as her father was. It’s not something you would want to show publicly, especially to the community. And once he started coming home drunk, and just–
Well, it started off with just beating her for any like, I don’t know? Minor things. She – if she didn’t complete her chores to his liking. Or if, I don’t know? If she wasn’t asleep at the time he would come home. And where – which was very weird, because we didn’t really have a very early curfew. At least, I’m pretty – I know that in my family or in my wife’s family at the time, there was no like strict curfew about it.
So yeah, it all started with that. And then– I’m sorry this is a bit hard to talk about. But– Her dad started sexually molesting her by the time she was about 11 or 12. And the reason why she didn’t come forth – well, it’s hard enough coming forth to anyone about something like that. And since we were in this organization, and he was – I don’t know? He was like the big boss. And you’re always the boss if you’re the male in the family.
Yeah, she was basically ordered by her father and her mother – that knew about it, that she cannot tell anyone about the drinking, about the beating – anything. And basically she just did what she was told.
Zee: When a Jehovah’s Witness exp eriences sexual abuse they are supposed to report it to elders, who are always men, who will take further action if there is a second witness to the offence. The perpetrator will then be called before a judicial committee if they admit abuse or if there is a second witness. But oftentimes, these crimes were swept under the rug as a sin, and everyone knows a sin is easier to cover up than a crime.
K: if it’s not a crime, but only a sin – you can always– Well, for the most part, you can get rid of your sins. You can brush them off. You either don’t commit them ever again, or you follow what the Bible says afterwards. And yeah and – right? So the organization has a fairly bad name as it is. If that got out, then it would just destroy whatever good we have, or we – as in the organization would like–
K:: Well I mean, there are always two sides of a story. And my wife and I – I know, and I did tell you that we’re fairly open about our past. But we try to stay clear of such people that are still in the organization, and definitely not tell anyone that we used to be in this organization. It’s also pretty hard to see people protesting or like trying to get new members in.
I mean a lot of people kind of close their eyes on a lot of things, or maybe not even know that’s – not a lot of things inside the organization that happen, especially high up. So they kind of miss the whole– Like the very scary part of the story. And I just – when I see people in the organization or trying to recruit people, or people being recruited – I just hope they, they have a different experience than my wife and I did. That’s the best I can do, I guess?
K: We’re still religious. Not to the extent we were, obviously. But we’re more of a – we lean to the Protestants and we go to church. We follow the basic rules of the Protestant Church.
K: I mean, my wife and I – we still believe in God. We go to church. We say our prayers. It’s just that we– We don’t– We believe in God in a bit of a different way now. So and what God is for us now is– I guess it’s practically the same thing – but without all the restrictions that we were used to, that were imposed on us before. And it’s a lot easier to be religious now. That’s what – at least that’s what we found.
Zee: Despite all the trauma they both suffered – especially Kristoff’s wife – they have both found peace in their faiths.
K: Now my wife and I, we see God as a very loving, accepting of everyone– And basically a God that does not impose any strict rules. I mean we don’t have to be frightful of what other people think of, about our religion now. We just carry on with our lives.
Ella: As our podcast comes to a close today.. Reflect on the idea you had on cults before hearing this podcast.. has your idea changed at all?
When we think about cults, we generally don’t think about our neighbors or our coworkers.. Instead, the likes of Charles Manson, Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown probably come to mind. But Sarah and Kristoff’s stories both exemplify, how cultish groups are regularly an accepted part of society. Once you feel accepted by and become invested in a group, it’s easy for anyone to overlook a group’s traditional, maybe odd, practices, and the hypocrisy that goes along with it.
Lewis, Sarah. Personal interview. 17 April 2018.
N/A, Kristoff. Personal interview. 14 April 2018.
DASK. “Transformation.” Liquid Decimation. 2 May 2018. Free Music Archive. MP3.
Hilowitz, David. “Scattered Light.” By David Hilowitz. 6 May 2018 Free Music Archive. MP3.
Andersen, Ryan. “Seul Dans la Nuit.” Solitude. By Ryan Andersen. 5 April 2018. Free Music Archive. MP3.
Tagirijus. “Two Pianos.” Easy. By Tagirijus. 2 March 2018. Free Music Archive. MP3.