It’s no wonder I struggle with issues of self-esteem. Until only recently, it had not entered my mind to consider myself a victim. In fact, I pride myself in being strong and resilient at my age. However, I recently stumbled upon some information on the topic of cults and mind control, and saw how applicable it was to my early convent years. During my first five, pre-Vatican II years in the convent, my companions and I were deliberately subjected to a gradual erasure of our individuality. Much like the military, we were broken down and then systematically reformed into more acceptable products.
In short, we were brainwashed.
According to Rick Ross, the founder and executive director of the Rick A. Ross Institute—an expert on cults, controversial groups and movements—there are warning signs of groups and individuals who use such mind control techniques. I recognized each of those listed in an article quoting Rick by Dr. Phil:
- 1.Cults enforce a controlled environment: Loved ones are cut off from family,
In my story, Once Upon a Convent, you will read about how the convent enforced this rule and how it affected me.
- In cults, there is a necessity to break down the sense of self—the self-esteem–to literally attack them as individuals on the basis that they are wrong
and that the group is right.
Knowing this has begun to help me “put myself back together” again. My book gives evidence of the erasure of my personal identity.
- Instill a new sense of identity: a group identity
that reinforces and outlines the right behavior and the right way of being.
Wearing the habit and following the rules took away who I was as an individual—even as a teen-ager and blossoming young woman. To this day, I feel somewhat lost when I don’t belong to some kind of other-ness—marriage, partnership, or communal endeavor.
Isolate: Cut off from outside world. Fear keeps them trapped
inside the environment of the group.
Even without fences, guards, or chains, we were trapped within the remote confines of a rural community, far from old friends, family, and the rest of the world.
The process of writing my story has unearthed the similarity between cults and my convent experience. I understand now, why I sometimes feel invisible. Like I wouldn’t be noticed unless I was gone. In the convent, I remained unseen, unless I allowed the dust in my assigned hallway to accumulate to any measurable degree. I was important in my performance of duty. Had there been no one to dry the pots and pans during my nightly dish duty, someone would have come looking for me. Or had my assigned spot in chapel been unoccupied during prayer, my absence would have been noted. As long as I fit into my prescribed slot in the communal machine, no one gave me a second thought.
Except my parents, who regularly wrote me about how much they missed me. Otherwise, I felt erased. Unimportant. We were taught that invisibility was a noble way for nun to feel. It was an indication that we were advancing toward the state of being without ego—of becoming humble. I quickly mastered the art of melding into the crowd within days of my entrance.
Had our differing attributes been highlighted, we would all have been enriched. Instead, we were individually erased. Expected to regard everyone equally; melt into the background, and act as one.
I still know how to disappear, but it no longer feels right. I remain marginally unsure of myself, and find it difficult to fade out. I still work on accepting myself as a unique individual. On some level, I’m still overcoming a deeply instilled sense of unworthiness.
Though my head definitely knows otherwise.