One Tree Hill’s Bethany Joy Lenz Reveals She Was in a Cult for 10 Years – UPDATE ON THE BOOK

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One Tree Hill's Bethany Joy Lenz Reveals She Was in a Cult for 10 Years

One Tree Hill alum Bethany Joy Lenz revealed she was in a cult for a decade, and she hopes that her experience can eventually help others.

One Tree Hill Alum Bethany Joy Lenz Reveals She Was in a Cult for 10 Years Hopes to Write a Book 253

Bethany Joy Lenz. AFF-USA/Shutterstock
“I was in a cult for 10 years,” Lenz, 42, shared on the Monday, July 10, episode of iHeartRadio’s “Drama Queens” podcast. “That would be a really valuable experience to write about, and the recovery — 10 years of recovery after that. So there’s a lot to tell.”

The subject came up as Lenz, who played Haley James Scott on OTH from 2003 to 2012, and cohost Sophia Bush were asked by guest Michaela McManus if they wanted to add author to their resumes. Their cohost Hilarie Burton Morgan already wrote her first memoir, The Rural Diaries, in 2020 with her follow-up, Grimoire Girl, set to hit bookshelves on October 3.

One Tree Hill Alum Bethany Joy Lenz Reveals She Was in a Cult for 10 Years Hopes to Write a Book 252
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Lenz said she “for sure” wants to pen a book one day and already has some pieces written. “I think the ADHD has made it really difficult over the years to — I have lots of essays and lots of chapters and things. But to really commit to putting it all together, I would love to write about my experience.”

The actress added that she worries about “the pressure of getting it right and everything having to be exactly real and all the people that are involved.”

She continued: “Also, I don’t know how much I can say because there are still people and legal things in place that make it more complicated for the timing of that. But I do write. I write all the time.”

Burton Morgan, 41, noted that Lenz can write about her experiences via song. “And I have,” the Everly frontwoman confirmed.

Lenz is no stranger to opening up about her personal life in an effort to help other people in similar situations. Previously, she played a memorable Grey’s Anatomy character who was abused by her partner. Lenz was asked to play the role specifically because of her past.

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“I got a call from Krista Vernoff, who’s the showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy. … She knew a bit about my personal history. I’ve been in an abusive relationship before,” Lenz said during a 2018 appearance on Steve Harvey‘s Steve show. “I wasn’t physically abused, but it was very emotionally, psychologically and spiritually abusive in a lot of ways.”

The Guiding Light alum added that she wanted to play Jenny, her Grey’s Anatomy character, to show that abused women can be strong and smart — and sometimes not even realize they’re experiencing abuse.

“You’re so used to this toxic masculinity idea of ‘boys will be boys,’ or ‘oh, he just lost his temper.’ To share with an audience in that way — to see a woman who is really smart and successful and charismatic being abused — I hoped that people would relate to that and maybe some women who relate to that situation without even knowing it would find a relief … and then have a way to start to get out,” Lenz said at the time.

Bethany Joy Lenz: ‘One Tree Hill Saved My Life’ During ‘Painful’ Decade Spent in Bible-Based Cult

Bethany Joy Lenz is opening up about a “painful” period in her life, one that sounds like a storyline straight out of One Tree Hill, the teen drama on which she starred from 2003 to 2012.

In a new interview with our sister publication Variety, the actress details her 10-year involvement with a “Bible-based cult” whose controlling leader she likens to NXIVM’s Keith Raniere, the subject of the HBO docuseries The Vow.

“I was very committed to my faith and just got some really bad advice,” she says of joining the group, which began as a weekly Bible study. “I was really committed to being the best version of me that I can be within the context of what I knew.”

Lenz says her involvement with the group spanned “the entirety of [her] time on One Tree Hill,” explaining that “it was the whisper behind the scenes” on the show’s North Carolina set. “It was open with them,” she recalls. “For a while, they were all trying to save me and rescue me, which is lovely and so amazing to be cared about in that way. But I was very stubborn. I was really committed to what I believed were the best choices I could make.”

The cult’s goal was to isolate Lenz from everyone around her, something she says “built a deep wedge of distrust” between her and the show’s cast and crew.

“As much as I loved them and cared about them, there was a fundamental thought: If I’m in pain, if I’m suffering, I can’t go to any of these people,” she says. “So you feel incredibly lonely.”

Fortunately, Lenz was too busy and constantly surrounded by friends and coworkers to ever find herself truly isolated.

“In a lot of ways, One Tree Hill saved my life, because I was there nine months out of the year in North Carolina,” she says. “I had a lot of flying back and forth, a lot of people visiting and things like that, but my life was really built in North Carolina. And I think that spatial separation made a big difference when it was time for me to wake up.”

Though Lenz doesn’t think she was ever “consciously scared” during her time with the cult, she recalls “a few physical interactions” that left her rattled. “And some of those moments actually caused me to be able to recognize a bit of what was happening to me and start to make strides to get out,” she says, adding that she officially left the cult “very shortly after” One Tree Hill ended in 2012.

In her first lengthy interview about her experience, Lenz explains, at times very emotionally, what happened in her past and how she’s found the strength to move forward.

We’re diving right in. You casually mentioned you were in a cult for 10 years, but I have to admit I was surprised you agreed to do an interview about it. Why are you choosing to tell your story now?

I’ve spoken about this for the last year, kind of casually on and off. Maybe six or seven months ago, I mentioned it for the first time. And it was sort of a soft drop in. I didn’t really want it to be a headline. So I wasn’t trying to make it a big deal. I was beginning to feel like I was hiding something because it was such an integral part of my personal journey while I was on “One Tree Hill.” As we’re just talking about all the behind the scenes, we keep talking about all the times everybody was hanging out.

I keep saying, “Wish I had been there.”

Eventually, it started to feel like, why don’t you just be honest, Joy? Part of that journey has been, for me, is that I think whenever you’re involved in something abusive, there’s shame attached to it. And when you leave, there’s just so much shame, like, “Why did I allow myself to get involved in something like this? That’s across the board — whether it’s something like a cult or an abusive relationship or any kind of family dynamic where that’s created. Shame, I believe in my experience, naturally causes us to close up and not want to expose that part of ourselves for fear of being seen and then being further shamed by outside sources.

What I came to realize was that there’s actually a lot of power in exposing that shame to the light and allowing new information to come in. And there’s not just power in that for me, but my hope is that — and really why I wanted to talk about it — is because I think it can be really healing for a lot of other people. I know I’m not the only one. What good are our painful experiences if we just lock them away and pretend like everything’s perfect? That’s not doing anybody any good.

That’s something so evident on your podcast with Hilarie Burton Morgan and Sophia Bush; you guys talk about so many things people have experienced.

Exactly, and this felt like an extension of that and I was hoarding it because I was afraid.

Aside from overcoming the shame, the other reason it took so long to open up publicly was because I don’t like to identify as a victim. There’s no guarantee in life that we won’t suffer, and demanding justice for my suffering isn’t something I want to spend my life focused on when I could be learning how to love better and find peace regardless of my circumstance. So, I might visit for lunch, but victimhood isn’t a hotel I’m real comfortable staying in.

There must be a lot of fear there in revealing it.

The other huge fear was that I’d be seen publicly or by casting directors as “that girl who was in a cult.” I’m an actor — my whole job is to be able to disappear into a role. If everyone saw me as a victim of some kind, I’d lose my effectiveness in doing what I deeply love to do: act. The irony is, I squandered so many opportunities because I prioritized this group.

I was at the height of my career, getting offers for huge movies and Broadway shows. Everything I’d trained for, all my childhood dreams were coming true and I said no to all of it so I could go live with this remote, small group of people, convinced I was making a noble, spiritual sacrifice. I’ll tell you, any group that requires you to believe every detail of what they believe in order to be loved without condemnation… please run the other way. Just run.

These fears are still real for me, but ultimately I want to do good in the world, so, if my experience can keep someone from destroying their own life — that’s the trump card.

I also had just been through so much that I didn’t want to stir up more drama. I’m a peacemaker at heart. I’ll hold to my convictions until you’ve me a good reason to change my mind, but I’m not here to cause unnecessary harm. Really, I just wanted things to be quiet and anonymous so I could find myself again.

So, how old were you when you joined the cult?

It was the entirety of my time on “One Tree Hill.” I got involved in something that seemed very rote. I grew up in a Christian home where Wednesday night Bible studies were very common. I think that there’s a lot of people that can resonate with that. And I just went to another one. I moved to a new state, moved to a new city, and I went to another Wednesday night Bible study and that’s all it was to me. But the friendships seemed deeper, more vulnerable somehow, as time went on. The person that was brought into the leadership position was sociopathic and most of us who were involved were in our early 20s. Did you watch “The Vow?”

I did.

I actually became friends with Bonnie [Piesse] and Sarah Edmondson. Sarah played my mom in a Hallmark movie and we never met. Isn’t that crazy? We’d never met but I DM’d her after I watched “The Vow,” and I was like, “There’s so many similarities — specifically with Keith Raniere and the guy that I was dealing with. Can we talk?” And she’s become a good friend. And Bonnie’s great too. When I watched “The Vow,” that’s the best comparison I can make, in terms of the functionality of the leadership in that group. But one thing that Mark [Vicente] said, “Nobody joins a cult, you join a good thing.” Nobody walks into a situation and says, “Sign me up. I want to fuck up the rest of my life.”

I was very committed to my faith and just got some really bad advice. I was really committed to being the best version of me that I can be within the context of what I knew.

You were 22 when “One Tree Hill” premiered. Were you would already in it when the show started or was it a little after?

Within a year or two, yeah. I can’t remember right this second.

Did any of the cast or crew know?

Oh, yeah. It was open with them — it was the whisper behind the scenes, like “You know, she’s in a cult.” For a while, they were all trying to save me and rescue me, which is lovely and so amazing to be cared about in that way. But I was very stubborn. I was really committed to what I believed were the best choices I could make. Legally, I don’t think they’re allowed to be called cults, they’re “high demand groups.”

The nature of a group like that is isolation; they have to make you distrust everyone around you so that the only people you trust are, first and foremost, the leadership and then, people within the group if the leadership approves of them, and isn’t in the middle of pitting you against each other, which happens all the time also.

It built a deep wedge of distrust between me and my cast and crew.

As much as I loved them and cared about them, there was a fundamental thought: If I’m in pain, if I’m suffering, I can’t go to any of these people. So you feel incredibly lonely. But a lot of the people in that group lived there, and were in it day after day. So in a lot of ways, “One Tree Hill” saved my life, because I was there nine months out of the year in North Carolina. I had a lot of flying back and forth, a lot of people visiting and things like that, but my life was really built in North Carolina. And I think that spatial separation made a big difference when it was time for me to wake up.

Did you lose any family or friends because of it?

I did. That’s been one of the most painful, shameful, difficult parts — knowing that I missed nieces and nephews growing up, weddings, birthdays, funerals, major events. As a survival mechanism, when you fully are dependent on this social structure, you have to shut off the part of your heart that cares deeply. You can care, but it can only go so far because if you have access to that, it threatens the security of the construct of your social environment — which is only this one group of people.

So if you start to allow your heart to feel deep empathy, deep care toward other people, it may pull you away a bit from your group, and that’s a threat. Because you so desperately need the group — you think you do. Even though it’s painful and there’s a lot of drama, there’s a lot of control, there’s so much that makes you feel depressed and lonely and all these horrible things that come with being in a deeply controlled environment like that, you don’t have anybody else.

You’re so isolated. You’re so afraid to leave. If I leave that, what will I have? And then throw God into the mix. If I leave that, will God still love me? Will I be eternally disobeying this greater power? It’s a very visceral tie and so you really, as a survival mechanism, shut off your heart to caring about a lot of people.

Family members who expressed concern or who were like, “What are you saying? This is crazy,” — anyone who kind of went against what I was experiencing in my reality — became a bit of the enemy. It’s sort of like the Scientology suppressive person. I would say it’s very similar. At least they label it.

I want to go back a little. You were talking about the comparisons to “The Vow” and Keith Raniere and that your family was questioning you. Can you give me an example of how you were behaving? What type of things were you saying?

It was more of a language. Have you ever heard the term Christianese? If you spend a lot of time in church, there’s this language that people use with each other and if you grew up in it, it sounds very familiar. If then you go into your work environment that’s not church or you’re culturally in a place where that’s not a part of every everybody’s everyday life, and you start using that language, people are like, “What the hell? Why are you talking so weird?” I think there was more of that, that we had developed this way of talking to each other talking about relationships.

There were these weird buzzwords that are not a part of normal everyday society that make you feel like you’re elevated, like you’re in a better position than other people, because you know all these cool phrases and super highly spiritual concepts.

It’s so condescending. You just are living in such a space of being condescending to people.

Because it was a Bible-based cult — and I have a lot of family who are Christians that I really admire; I think there’s a lot of different versions of Christianity — but people who have a sincere relationship with God and really have done a lot of studying of theology that I respect their mind, at that time, were definitely like, “Well, that’s not what the Bible says at all. What are you talking about? Here’s the history, here’s the science. Here’s what we have as proof for A, B or C.” But I couldn’t hear it, because I needed to see it through the lens that had been interpreted for me.

Wow. You talked about the fear of not having the group. How did you overcome that fear?

There are several different answers, I think I’m trying to actually boil it down into one. That question’s also never been put to me that way. People always ask me how I got out. Nobody’s ever said, “How did you overcome the fear of not having them?” Thank you. It’s multi-faceted. At some point, for some people, the pain of being a part of something so oppressive becomes greater than the fear of leaving and not knowing what will happen. That was part of it.

Motherhood was a big part of it for me. Major. The phrase I keep hearing in my head is just “God’s timing.” Because there are a lot of schools of thought about the idea of human autonomy, God’s will, free will, energy, karma, the flow of things that we don’t understand of why something works on a Monday and doesn’t work on a Wednesday, of why all the right moments in the world and the universe have to converge at the right time for the right time. It was time.

How long after “One Tree Hill” ended in 2012 did you get out?

Very shortly after.

How did the experience affect your work life after getting out?

Trust has become a huge issue for me in recovery. It’s not just a general distrust of most people’s conscious or subconscious motives, but a mistrust of my own ability to discern someone sincere from someone who’s lying. You certainly can’t trust other people if you can’t trust yourself!

I actually even noticed a pattern with myself on sets, where, if anything made me feel like I couldn’t trust the director, my whole body went into protective mode. It became almost impossible from that point forward for me to hear them because I didn’t want to be made a fool of by trusting the wrong person and then having my work suffer as a result. And my work was the one thing in my life besides motherhood where I knew I had good instincts. That was something I really had to sort through and learn to be stern with my ego. “Sit down, ego. Maybe we can learn something here” is a mantra I’m constantly attempting to let surface.

I think a lot of people hear the word “cult” and think different things, especially after watching “The Vow” or Googling Scientology. While you were in, were you ever fearful for your life or the safety of your friends or family?

I don’t think I was ever consciously scared other than a few… there were a few physical interactions I had that made me scared, but also, because I have ADHD, I am really excellent in a crisis. So when someone starts yelling or getting wild or violent or things like that, my blood pressure goes way down. I drop into this really calm zone. So I might even feel fear, but I get really focused, really clear and strong in those moments. And some of those moments actually caused me to be able to recognize a bit of what was happening to me and start to make strides to get out.

I don’t know how much fear I felt that I was aware of. But I lived in a massive amount of fear. You don’t get into any kind of situation like that where you’re not living in a deep fear. I was just afraid of God. I was afraid of having my own relationship with God, so it was like, “Oh, I’ll join these people. They’ll just tell me what to do, and then I won’t actually have to do it myself. I can just follow up everybody else’s rules.” It’s a total cop out. You stick around because of the fear of whatever’s on the other thing.

When did you feel the most fearful?

It was after I left — that was the most scared I got. Afraid of my child being taken away, afraid of being slandered and ridiculed, afraid of never working again, afraid of being misunderstood, shamed… the aftermath of admitting I was so wrong about something I’d committed my whole life to was absolutely crushing. I think this is why so many people stay in abusive situations. Leaving itself isn’t actually that hard (or, wasn’t for me). It’s the admission that we were so colossally mistaken. “How can I ever trust myself again to make any decisions about anything?” That fear is paralyzing in a way that takes many years to recover from.

One silver lining survivors of cults have talked about is the relationships they’ve been able to form with others who have gotten out. Are you still in touch with anyone who you were in the cult with?

I am. A couple of the people I’m really close with. They were people who were kind of getting out around the same time I was. They were incredibly supportive and helpful, and that went such a long way. There were other people who were getting out at the same time that were too afraid to help me. Everyone was really afraid of the repercussions.

It has been difficult for me to maintain a friendship with them. It’s not like I wish them ill will, but there’s no deeper place than that. Spiritual abuse is like the deepest… How are you going to mess with somebody’s relationship with God? What else do we have if not our relationships to a higher power? So that place was so deep and intimate, that the people who showed up for me in that place, those are ride or die. Those are the people that I know I can trust.

I mean, it was like a secret life. I’m on this TV show. I’m living this glamorous, celebrity life — as people see it — and I have a total secret life going on. It was so painful. I have people in my life who went through all that, saw all that and went through it with me — they saw the abuse and were around for it, and then sometimes even participated in it — and then, to ask for my forgiveness and to maintain friendship and to show up, those relationships really mean a lot to me. I’ve had to ask for forgiveness too. That’s part the healing.

Speaking of the healing. You said on the podcast it took you about 10 years to get out of it and recover. Do you think you are recovered or is it an ongoing process?

It’s an ongoing process. There’s definitely triggers that still come up and I have to ask myself if I’m living in fear in this moment — am I functioning out of fear? I mean, I really was such a Pollyanna. I just believed in the best in everybody and couldn’t imagine that there were really bad people in the world. You hear about like, Hitler, but nobody thinks that the pastor on the corner is going to be a malignant narcissist who wants to steal all your money and take your soul just for his own kicks.

It’s been a very hard lesson, and it put me in a place where I really stopped trusting a lot of people. I’m sure it affected my work. I’m sure I had strange tendencies. I have overreactions to not trusting people in scenarios that are trivial.

It’s been so annoying, because I see it happening in real time — the triggers and reactions I’m having. And so there’s been a lot of inner work, there’s been a lot of therapy, there’s been a lot of talking with friends and praying. It is a miracle in and of itself, the fact that I even still believe in God after getting out of something like that, but there has been a lot of work done and I think there will continue to be a lot of work for me to do.

How did you re-find your connection to faith?

So I grew up in in a Christian home. I had a version of my faith that was very wrapped up in a bow. I thought it was pretty simple: Here’s all the rules that I follow; if I do all the right things, then I get my golden ticket and I get to go into heaven. When I was 19, I had a supernatural experience that I couldn’t explain that was so totally irrelevant to anything going on in my life that I was confused about it for years. Of all the times I’ve been weeping on a bathroom floor or like crying out desperate for a sign or wisdom or something, and just… crickets — “You want to talk to me when I’m eating a bowl of Cheerios, then there’s nothing wrong?”

When I left the group, I thrust a hearty middle finger up at the sky, and just was like, “Fuck you. I can’t believe I was such a good girl. I did all the right things. I did everything the way that millennia of people have been told that they just have to do it this way — X, Y and Z — and then all good things will happen to you. And I did it and then this happened to me. And this is where it led me — just utter desolation.”

But I couldn’t start from absolute zero because I had this experience that I knew if it had come at a time when I was in distress, I would have just said that I imagined it because I needed to feel like God responds.

But I couldn’t say that because that’s not what happened, and so I started from that place. I couldn’t start from zero but I can start from one. I know you’re real. I know you’re intentional. You see me and you care. That’s all I got. So I’m gonna keep I’m going to start moving about my life now in a way that is completely from the gut. My only prayer, if you’re listening, is lead me. You have to speak to me in a way that I will hear you. If you can do that, I will follow you. Whenever you put up a guidepost, I will do that. But otherwise, I’m doing whatever I want.

It took 10 years so far of unwinding and following the guideposts that I see and studying, researching, being thoughtful.

I feel so much more free now, so much happier, so much more authentic in my life and I’m not doing it. Like I can’t take credit for any of it the way that I could when I was younger.

“Oh, I chose to be a Christian. I chose the right way. Look at me, pat on the back. I’m so smart, too bad all these other people just haven’t quite figured it out. They’re just not quite smart enough yet.” I mean, it’s so fucking condescending… So I decided, “I’m showing up and following and whatever he reveals to me, great; if he hasn’t revealed something, that’s none of my business. I’m just gonna try and live as authentically as I can.”

Is there something someone could have said or done to get you out earlier?

No. I’ve thought about that a lot, believe me. I have friends who are involved in groups and I see it happening. I see them going in, and it’s too late even then. Somebody’s walking into it, they’re walking in for a reason. There’s something that’s filling a need, it’s filling a void and the best thing that you can do is just build a trust with that person.

Build a trust that feels unbreakable for them. Be the person that calls to check up on them, be the person that encourages them and congratulates them, even when they’re talking to you about all their weird little “culty” milestones. It doesn’t mean that you can’t ever challenge them, because challenge is important, but you really have to decide if your relationship with that person is more important to you than being right.

Sometimes, it’s a long haul and you’ve just gotta keep showing up and you cannot give them a reason to cut you out of their life, because they will in a second. But as far as anything you could say, no. I don’t think anybody could have said anything. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.

Are you ready to keep writing and sharing more details?

There’s so much more that could help people, so much about this weird, secret life. I’m going to put it all out there and yeah, I’ll share some of the all the dirty details — as much as I can without causing harm.

I’m not here to cause more harm, but I really do want to share so anybody who reads this book is going to be able to go, “Oh, I recognize that,” “This is happening to me,” “My pastor just said that the other day,” “My boyfriend keeps doing all the exact same things, that’s so strange.” I feel like there’s so much. I just want to squeeze every ounce of help out of this experience. I want this experience to just be the fucking biggest lemon I ever had. Let me fucking squeeze out all the juice for everybody else — we’re gonna make some lemonade.

An Instagram announcement by Bethany Joy Lenz today revealed that her upcoming memoir will be titled Dinner for Vampires.

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