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“We’re all like this, aren’t we?”
Those are the poignant words spoken by Natalie to Misty in Season 2, Episode 6 of Showtime’s Yellowjackets. The women are in their 40s. Nearly 25 years earlier, they were on a high school soccer team together, and headed to a championship game when their plane went down in the wilderness. The wildly popular show toggles between what Natalie, Misty, and their peers did to survive for 19 months in the wilderness (including, as we see on-screen in great detail this season, cannibalism) and how it affects them in the present day, as adults.
Now, midway through the season, Natalie is slowly beginning to realize that they all struggle to form attachments with other people in the aftermath of their shared, and quite severe, trauma. The location of this revelation is significant, as she and Misty are together at a “wellness center”—really, a rural waterfront campus home to a cult—run by another survivor of the crash, Lottie Matthews, who is described as a “diagnosed schizophrenic” and who had visions and a sort of mystical power during their time in the wilderness. The former soccer teammates aren’t at the wellness center for R&R, exactly. Natalie ended up there after she was kidnapped during a suicide attempt by some of Lottie’s followers and Misty came to rescue her. But after a few days of reluctantly participating in group activities, it’s as if Natalie also recognizes they aren’t so different from Lottie’s followers either. They, too, are “like this”: emotionally suffering and isolated.
As a psychiatrist, I watched these scenes with interest, wondering if there was something about people with mental health histories, particularly trauma, that may make them more susceptible to places like Lottie’s center, where participants have limited contact with the outside world, have handed over their personal files “willingly,” and dress all in purple. Places with appealing, even gorgeous exteriors and enticing promises about health and healing that conceal a system of rigid rules, authoritarian leadership, and an ethos of control. In other words, cults.
In my psychiatric practice, I’ve never, as far as I’m aware, had my own patients join a cult (or start one), but I have often noticed just how vulnerable my patients are to wellness practices from influencers. They’ve tried excess green tea, microdosing, or supplements in hopes that it will cure their depression. These options seem all the more appealing as solutions for my patients who have felt that traditional methods of therapy and medication have been less effective, were negative or harmful in some way, or have failed them entirely. In trying these alternative methods, what they are really looking for is hope.
Cults can supply that hope with a nontraditional answer, and fill in the gap where other mental health treatments (like seeing me!) have failed, says Glenn Patrick Doyle, a trauma therapist and the board president of SEEK Safely, a nonprofit organization that advocates for ethics and accountability in the self-help industry. And the hope supplied by cults may be more robust and long-lasting than a bottle of CBD oil. “They often provide someone who is suffering with a hypothesis or story about why they’re suffering that seems to make more sense than the stories they’ve been told by others,” he explains. “They provide tools, skills, and philosophies that seem to be more immediately or ultimately helpful than those provided by others.” The support goes much further than offering a new framework, though, says Doyle. “Perhaps most importantly, they often provide a supportive environment of people who have also suffered, but seem to have achieved relief via this nontraditional path.” For people seeking connection, or even struggling to find it, cults offer the promise of belonging.
Some of the aspects of Lottie’s cult on Yellowjackets, like the purple clothing, and the fact that contact with family members is discouraged (“our anchors are at the compound”), might seem like features of a pretty extreme cult. But Doyle says they are actually characteristic of how many cult-like groups in the wellspace operate: “Supposedly, everyone is free to do whatever they want, but it’s made clear that to achieve the benefits the group or guru promised, followers should follow the unwritten ‘rules.’ ”
Take Teal Swan and her followers, for example. Swan describes herself as having been born with extrasensory abilities, and states that her mission is to “transform human suffering to an empowered and authentic life.” She started with a YouTube series, and has expanded to books and retreats, and now amassed millions of followers, many of whom deal with trauma, depression, and suicidal thoughts. She is controversial for many reasons—watch the Hulu documentary The Deep End for more—but one is her targeting of those with mental health struggles and her approach to suicide, which many experts feel is dangerous and even encouraging of it.
Teal and Lottie are both charismatic leaders with self-described spiritual gifts but also their own significant mental health history complete with psychiatric hospitalizations. Their rules apply only to their followers, not to them (like Lottie keeping her own door locked). They also both have long, flowing hair, piercing eyes, and sport few signs of aging. (Yellowjackets lets its actresses look like relatively regular women—but not Lottie.) “Lottie is very much like many people I come across who lead cults in person or even online, who seem very poised, wise, a bit intimidating and untouchable, sensual and camera-ready,” says Rachel Bernstein, a therapist who works with former cult members and hosts IndoctriNation, a weekly podcast. The outer beauty and charisma are not incidental; they are integral to the package. Being a celebrity—Misty even says she feels popular because she knows Lottie—and speaking as if you’re delivering a TED Talk, points out Bernstein, “are ultimately not very spiritual goals.”
It can be easy to dismiss joining a cult as “not something I would do” or even as a downright unintelligent choice. But Doyle says that this simply isn’t the case. “Predatory groups and leaders prey on people who are in pain,” he explains. “Pain cuts through intelligence. When we are in pain, we will do almost anything to get out of pain. We will believe anything—or anyone—who seems to have answers.”
Pain is an incredibly human condition that comes in many forms and for many reasons. A person also does not need a history of mental health struggles to be susceptible to the pull of a cult. Still, this pull for answers is particularly strong in trauma survivors who desperately want to understand the why behind their experiences. The issue is that there is no why: sometimes bad things can happen to good people. Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and the author of Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included), puts it like this: “Anytime there is trauma, whether it’s of the extreme type that we see in Yellowjackets or whether it’s what my patients experience every day, like toxic work environments, difficult interpersonal relationships, there is a fantasy that there can be a simple and clear solution.” Lakshmin speaks from experience. After a rough period in her 20s, she joined an orgasmic meditation commune and was convinced, she later wrote, that she “had found the Answer to life’s problems.” (The group was later investigated by the FBI.) That’s what cults like Lottie’s offer: not just an answer but, supposedly, the answer. Lottie herself describes her center like this: “We are an intentional community, turning suffering into strengths so we can live as our best selves.” It’s just that followers are heavily discouraged from also being their “best selves” anywhere else.
What else could Lottie’s followers do instead to satisfy their need for explanation instead of wearing animal costumes and chanting in the wilderness? Jamie Zuckerman, a clinical psychologist, says that anything that enhances their own sense of identity, like travel, hobbies, dance, and art, is a good place to start. Another thing to do, of course, is go to trauma therapy, which can help people better understand themselves and their patterns, and ultimately teach them new ways of surviving. It is currently unclear how many of the Yellowjackets have sought mental health treatment. But we know that Lottie has, and she turns to it for support in order to help her help others.
Doyle cautions, however, against assuming that trauma therapy and traditional mental health treatment will be a healthy and harmless experience for everyone in every context. Trauma therapy could be unhealthy if the therapist doing it provided substandard treatment, or manipulated the vulnerable patient in some way. Outside of the clinical setting, many people disguised as therapists, but who are actually coaches, dispense unhelpful advice on platforms like TikTok. Even in cases in which it is done correctly, trauma therapy often worsens people’s symptoms before improving them. Patients need to be aware of what they are getting into, and ready to make the commitment.
Doyle recommends, instead, not having strict rules for what is or isn’t healthy. Patients may well find healing and help outside the bounds of traditional therapy settings, and even in the wellness world. He tells patients “to approach whatever resource they’re interested in with both openness and skepticism. To be mindful that many resources can be helpful or healing to us on our journey—but also that any resource has the potential to become dangerous if we lose awareness of our individual needs, boundaries, and values (which is what wellness-oriented cults explicitly encourage).” Like all things, mysticism, I suppose, is fine with boundaries and in moderation.
“You want to make sure that it is OK for you to move from one belief to the next,” says Bernstein. In other words, if you can’t leave, or are told that you won’t be safe if you leave, that is actually exactly the time to leave.
A central mystery of Yellowjackets is how they make it out of the literal wilderness. But just as important might be how they find their way toward recovery, and a more solid way of seeing and interacting with the rest of the world.