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Illustration by Jake Goldwasser

Dear friends and neighbors,

I would like to bring to light an issue that has affected my family and me over the past four years, with the hope that you may avoid making the same mistakes we did. When I was a senior in high school we fell victim to the coercive practices of a cult, the repercussions of which have taken an enormous toll on our lives.

It all began when we received a letter in the mail advertising the organization and offering tours of its compound in West Harlem. The organization is already one of the largest holders of real estate in New York and continues to grow through massive construction projects across Manhattan. The brochure for the fanatical sect promised intellectual stimulation and open-mindedness, and my parents convinced me, a naïve 17-year-old, to complete one of their programs.

The brainwashing began from day one, exposing me to ideas that undermined some of the most basic premises of our society. For nearly 100 years the cult has indoctrinated its followers with the same list of toxic readings. The buildings of the compound even sport the names of the list's authors in an obsessive monument to their doctrine. And let me be clear when I say that these grand edifices are not the namesakes of role models of clear thinking to whom a young person ought to be exposed—Ayn Rand's name, for example, is engraved nowhere. Instead, the reading list is a catalog of the visions of ancient lunatics. Many devotees never recover from the propaganda, leaving the program with a completely warped worldview. Some become solipsists or revolutionaries, some mystics or bohemians, others homosexuals, and many even become atheists. To think—all of this in Upper Manhattan. 

I observed many of my fellow believers consume alcohol and other mind-altering drugs during my time at the compound. Almost everyone exhibited a blatant disregard for the law of our land as a result of an unwavering conviction fueled by their dogmatic zeal. One coed under the influence of cannabis consumed an entire Philly cheesesteak and a tray of microwavable taquitos in a single sitting. Frequently, disciples would stay up well past midnight listening to strange electric thumps and squeals and desperately trying to find a temporary mate. Their practices were bizarre. On more than one occasion, I saw the tenants of an entire building open their windows simultaneously simply to shriek at the top of their lungs. And if that's not disturbing enough, it was common practice for students to camp out in libraries for days at a time, eyes glued to textbooks, fueled only by bad coffee, Chinese food, and the vain hope that someday they might find a job and a significant other. In retrospect, this kind of behavior is only explainable by the mania of religious fervor. There simply is no reasoning with those who are under the spell.

My family, too, yielded to the organization's crafty mental maneuvering. Lured by the promises of deeper understanding and the assurance of opportunity upon completion of the program, my parents paid upward of $60,000 per year—American dollars—for the “services” the rogue church offered me. Needless to say, I did not get my money's worth, especially considering that similar programs are offered around the world at a fraction of the cost. Now, four years later, I have finished the program penniless and bereft of the knowledge of even the simplest of trades. My peers and I have no discernible prospects except for the most menial jobs or entrance into another grift of a “program.” The notion of finding a tolerable livelihood as was promised to us is but a distant dream. So friends, in my light may you see light: Stay away from Columbia University.

Jake Goldwasser

Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Thinking Twice runs alternate Tuesdays.

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