¡hola papi!

‘My Friend Thinks I’m in a Cult’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I was introduced to a guy (let’s say Dylan) who runs divine masculine circles for guys in my area. It’s basically a group meditation followed by talking about our lives. Being transmasc, I found (and find) a lot of comfort in this brotherhood. My therapy at the time was awful, and Dylan told me he did out-of-pocket counseling. I took him up on it. (I later learned he does this as spiritual counseling and isn’t licensed, so he can keep his work out of The System.) 

I told my bestie about the Thanksgiving party held by Dylan and the fun but slightly weird vibes I had, and then I told him about my counseling. My friend was adamant that this was a cult and I needed to get far away. I trust him more than a rando I’ve known for less than a year, so I listened.

This was in December, and I haven’t contacted Dylan since. Recently, Dylan held another circle that I couldn’t attend. I feel bummed that I couldn’t, but should I be? Is there a world where I can keep my brotherhood and ignore the cult shit going on? 

In our last conversation, Dylan said he didn’t want to create a cult-like mentality. What do you think? Can cults have altruistic origins, or can they result in a net good? And I guess in the larger sense (if you wanna get philosophical about it), can you have a community of 30 to 50 people with faith as the glue and have it not be a cult?

Reluctant Joiner

Hey there, RJ!

At last. A cult letter.

I do think these situations fall under the “if you have to ask” category. It’s sort of like stopping yourself mid-sentence to wonder if you have a bad boyfriend because you’re making the umpteenth excuse for him to your friends at brunch. Maybe. I’m just guessing. I’m not a member of the brunch cult.

In any case, you’ve found the perfect freak to ask this question. I’ve gone down many, many internet rabbit holes about cults. I’m a bit obsessed. I love learning about how cults rise and fall, looking at their common hallmarks, and wondering if I would have fallen into one myself. I’m something of a chronic nonjoiner. I’ve never really believed in anything enough to dedicate my body and soul to it.

That’s the appeal of a cult, isn’t it? The dedication? Your malaise fritters away in the holy fire and you’re left with a singular mission in life. Honestly, it seems kind of nice. I know well that rapturous, distant “cult look” in people’s eyes. They know exactly what they were put on this earth to do, and they’re doing it. The rest doesn’t matter.

It’s no surprise to me, RJ, that people are willing to forsake their families and empty their bank accounts to achieve that state. We live in an often lonely world where a sense of community and purpose are difficult to come by. Unfortunately, of course, some have found ways to capitalize on this for personal gain.

Still, we can’t pretend cult is a cohesive term. There’s a lot of space between Heaven’s Gate and SoulCycle … for now.

No, but really, how would you define cult? Is it a size thing, thus excluding major world religions? Is it unconventional behavior, like the Disney adults who wear mouse ears and plan their lifespans around pilgrimages to theme parks? Is it chanting, like what happened to me at yoga one time when I thought I was going to get a nice stretch in but ended up doing a group ritual to summon a demon in Williamsburg? Is it when there’s one charismatic maniac at the center of the whole thing, like … well, like most things? Is it just the general creep factor?

It’s difficult to discern, and the reality is most of us dabble in activities that others might see as “cult-y.” Without naming it, I do [anonymous fitness class], and it feels like a cult. Astrology is so normalized in New York that one of my workplaces had us all go around and list our birth charts. That was cult-y. I have a bunch of Catholic saints in my house. Regular Drag Race viewing has rendered my everyday language into something that is no longer English.

Are we all in soft cults, if not full-blown ones?

I’m going to say something that might sound a little silly, RJ: A dash of cult is good, if not outright inevitable. We’ve got to believe in some things (beliefs are inherently silly), and if those things come with matching outfits and a little posse to vibe with, well, I won’t complain.

However, there are some things to look out for. I will make them into a handy little list here. You should immediately run for the hills if:

  • It is suggested you cut off friends or family.
  • They expect a lot of money. I don’t mean paying someone for a tarot reading. I mean they want you to tithe.
  • Language starts doing strange loop the loops, like, I don’t know, telling you to name your hunger “weakness” and saying “that’s weakness trying to speak over you” when your stomach grumbles.
  • There’s one guy with all the answers who calls all the shots and can’t be held accountable to the same rules as you (oh no, is our economy a cult?).
  • They trash-talk and malign individuals who have left the group.
  • There’s severe opposition to critical thinking.

Be wary of these things, RJ. Otherwise, you should be fine. It does give me pause that your friend is wary, but also I’m not super-intimidated by a cult leader named Dylan. I hope that’s a name you materialized out of thin air and isn’t close to his real one. I would not follow a cult leader named Dylan. Where would we even be going? Starbucks?

Actually, I take that back. Starbucks is kind of a hotbed for cults, isn’t it? Like, that’s where they go to chill and have loud conversations about “having a bird heart versus having a turtle heart” or whatever, all of them wearing jeans. It seems like nobody wants to sew fierce cult uniforms in matching colors anymore. Where’s the glamour? Where’s the effort? Where’s the compound? Flop cults abound.

Anyway, as long as it’s just “quirky church,” knock yourself out but remain vigilant. I hope you achieve unity with the divine masculine. I’m quite a ways off myself. Really nothing divine about mine right now. My masculinity needs another baptism. My masculinity is absolutely not breaking out of samsara. My masculinity is doing haram.

Oh, and “I don’t want to create a cult mentality” means nothing. Picture anyone else saying that. Picture Big Bird saying that. “Big Bird is running a cult” would and should be your first thought. Thanks.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published March 8, 2023.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘My Friend Thinks I’m in a Cult’