Growing up in and leaving a cult, as I did, is like being part of a massive human social experiment over which you have no control. It’s the closest thing to being a real alien: cut off from the world completely, then dropped into an unfamiliar plane of civilization. Aside from the psychological trauma, the constant waves of culture shock can seem never-ending, and we are reminded of Kimmy’s alienlike naïveté frequently throughout Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But it’s Kimmy’s psychological journey, specifically her savior complex, that sets this new season apart from season one (which I wrote about here), bringing a more accurate portrayal of the post-cult life struggle.
In order to understand the psychology of a cult escapee, one must attempt to understand the psychological tactics of the cult leader he or she escaped from. Although their motivations can be many and varied — from Charles Manson to Jim Jones to L. Ron Hubbard to David Brandt Berg, the cult leader I grew up under, to Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Kimmy’s fictional “reverend”) — all cult leaders have one trait in common: narcissism. Cult leaders love themselves, and it’s this charismatic love of self that attracts people, who follow them blindly.
Cult leaders justify their beliefs by surrounding themselves with people who adore them; their followers become an audience of mirrors where everything is reflected back at them. They seduce their followers into staying by telling them they are special, the chosen; followers (or survivors, in my and Kimmy’s cases) are forced to believe the lies they are told — they unknowingly inherit this trait. (Kimmy’s gullibility is not so unusual in this light.) From the onset of season two, it becomes apparent that Kimmy exhibits a savior complex. She feels responsible for saving first her roommate; Titus; then her boss; Lillian; her ex-lover, Dong, and, finally, Gretchen, her bunker-mate from the “reverend days.” Empathy, a seemingly virtuous trait, can turn destructive for the person who sacrifices him- or herself in pursuit of others’ needs. As a child, I was taught it was my duty to “save the world.” This savior mentality is one of the most difficult patterns to break and one that I have to repeat to myself constantly: I am not responsible for saving anyone else; I must only save myself.
It’s in episode nine where we meet Andrea (brilliantly played by Tina Fey), a therapist with a double life — shrink by day, obliterated drunk by night. After a brief conversation during an Uber ride, Kimmy’s psychological patterns begin to surface, and she finally decides to begin therapy. (I still have never seen a therapist regularly, although I always tell myself that when I find the right one I will — someday!) In episode ten, Kimmy’s “happy place” quickly turns into an unhappy place when Andrea reveals to her that therapy isn’t a quick fix, and the bunker isn’t the only thing that defines her. Since I was born into a cult rather than kidnapped like Kimmy was, I don’t know what life was before “the bunker,” but I do identify with Kimmy’s emotional reasoning: “Anger is bad and ugly and the opposite of what I want to be.” Cult leaders create for their followers a utopia, and in that ideal world, human emotions are not messy; the world is not unpredictable; and anything bad that happens is your fault, never anyone else’s. Andrea tells her what I have to tell myself all the time: You are entitled to that emotion.
In the season finale, Kimmy finally attempts to come to terms with the root of her trauma — her mother. Kimmy finds her mom, Lori Ann Schmidt (played by Lisa Kudrow), living her life hanging with friends, trying to beat amusement-park ride records; she is tragically casual about seeing her daughter again. Interestingly, parents who raise their children in cults often show the same detachment from their children, putting their loyalty to their leader and “the cause” above their children. Eventually, we see that the trauma a cult survivor faces isn’t dramatically different from the trauma your average person might face — it was abandonment and betrayal, rather than the bunker, that started Kimmy’s issues. When Kimmy faces this, it briefly shadows her trademark optimism — it’s this question of nature vs. nurture that cult survivors must grapple with after leaving. Kimmy ultimately comes out of it with the best takeaway for a cult survivor: Nature wins.