Tina Fey’s Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” might seem like a bizarre choice for a sitcom: a girl is rescued from a cult and has to figure out how to live in the ‘real’ world. Unfortunately, there are many of us who can identify with Kimmy, making the show somewhat difficult to watch.
While I was never part of the kind of cult Kimmy was in, she and I share similar symptoms of leaving fundamentalist, authoritarian religion: PTSD, social anxiety, and possibly, Religious Trauma Syndrome.
What is Religious Trauma Syndrome? While the name for it has been coined pretty recently, the problems have been around for, well, centuries. Simply put, Religious Trauma Syndrome is the after-effect of living in a toxic religious environment, and/or leaving religion altogether.
It usually occurs when a child or young person is subjected to an authoritarian religious environment, which often leads to isolation and a systemic reality based on threats (fear of punishment, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual).
Isolation leads to delayed development, including social skills, reasoning skills, and even self-care skills. For those not born into the narrow box of cisgender heterosexual male, this can include a belief that they are inferior, that they are broken, or that they will not go to heaven because of their gender/orientation. They are trapped, hemmed in by an authoritarian system that tries to control every single area of their lives..
When Kimmy saw Jacqueline’s portrait of her husband and asked if that was her “Reverend” and if she needed help, I almost cried. Kimmy saw another captive and wanted to break her free. I would give anything if I could have rescued my friends from the toxicity of our ‘religious freedom’.
Don’t get me wrong, I laughed while watching Kimmy Schmidt, but it contained a note of bitterness, an understanding that this was all too real for some of us. Tituss’ reaction to it is that of the general audience — they want to know the juicy details, the oddities of a religious environment where people argue that wine in the Bible was really just grape juice (because alcohol is evil) and dancing isn’t allowed because it always leads to [premarital] sex. It makes me uncomfortable when watching Kimmy because I feel like we’re all acting like Tituss, attempting to empathize but becoming mesmerized by the gruesome details.
Cult survival is a messy business. I’ve quit going to church. I don’t spend time with many of my friends in that circle anymore. I’ve had panic attacks when attempting to watch a Christmas program, and I’ve had to put away religious imagery and stay away from arguments on the internet. I’ve had to carve out a new life for myself, and I’ve had to learn a lot in a very short amount of time. I don’t feel like I’m surviving most days. I feel empty, alone, and abandoned. I feel hurt by the lack of care, and confused about the “truths” I was taught growing up. I feel like my entire life has been one big lie. Where do you go from there?
Through it all, I have clung to the word “resilient”. Like Kimmy, I’ve had to strike out on my own, find a job, make new friends, and decide who I want to be. Kimmy is a survivor. This doesn’t mean she has to be bouncy, cheerful, and smiling at all times. It does mean she will struggle and there will be days when she wants to give up. Those of us struggling to survive need to know that it’s possible, and that’s why we watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt..