At the start of April, we were shocked to discover the details of the NXIVM cult—an organisation which “brainwashed and blackmailed women into being sex slaves.” The female members of this supposed “self help cult” were branded with a mark on the skin. Confronted by such strangeness, we might find ourselves asking not only why such cults exist, but why anyone would ever think of joining one.
When thinking about cults, we tend to position ourselves as well beyond their reach. The kind of people who get involved in such things must be freaks, we tell ourselves. However, I am a fairly average person and my family has been involved with two different cult-like organisations and I myself have joined various alternative groups, which were subsequently accused of cult activity. I wrote a novel, Nina X, about a child growing up in a cult and I went through five years of research into cult behaviour, in the attempt to answer certain questions once and for all. What kind of people get drawn into cults? What do they lack? Why do some people feel the need to be under the control of an all-powerful leader? What answers are they looking for that society cannot provide?
It Could Happen to Anyone
Cult survivor and recovery counsellor Alexandra Stein has done much to expand our understanding of what cults are. Her book Terror, Love and Brainwashing charts the deep similarities between religious cults, political cults and cults of self-improvement. She herself survived over a decade of totalist control by a Marxist-Leninist cult, one of the many political cults now in existence.
Stein provides a five-point definition of a cult:
One: The leader is charismatic and authoritarian. Two: The structure of the group isolates people. The third thing is total ideology, like, ‘You only need me and no other belief system has any relevance whatsoever.’ The fourth thing is the process of brainwashing … [the fifth] is creating deployable followers who will do what you say regardless of their own survival interests.
Converts to cults are too easily dismissed as either victims, rebellious rich kids, drugged-out runaways, victims of domestic abuse, sufferers from personality disorders or simply gullible and naïve people. But, as Stein has shown (citing an MI5 report),“there is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be indoctrinated [into cults].”
Philip Zimbardo supports these findings, adding that the majority of cult followers are well-educated, sensible and logical. Under the right conditions, he says, anyone could be convinced to join a cult. According to former Moonie turned counsellor Steve Hassan, cults don’t want people with psychological problems or illnesses—they prefer productive and intelligent individuals, who are able to give generously of the time, energy and money to the cause.
There are, however, specific things that cults promise people with certain spiritual, political and emotional needs – certain sensitivities, vulnerabilities and desires.
Universal Love for the Lonely
By the time Diane Lake was fourteen, she’d been drifting around the 60s counterculture, lost and lonely. She was overcome by the affection that Charles Manson’s cult (1968–71) showered on her: “They were beaming with love and I felt it. Without hesitation, they sat me in their circle as if I belonged and, strange as it may seem, I felt like I belonged there, too.” She was particularly struck by the warmth of the charismatic leader: “Charlie held me at arm’s length, looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re beautiful. I’ve been looking for you … Dianne is home,’ he sang out, and the girls joined in with the chorus: ‘Home is where you are happy.’” As Lake was to reflect decades later, “I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of it … For the first time in my life … Like a raindrop joining a puddle, my loneliness disappearing.”
Cults very often use love bombing on potential new recruits. Cult members are extremely generous and flattering to those they’re trying to recruit and this can have a powerful effect on people with low self-esteem, or who’ve experienced loss or depression. Even ISIS make promises of friendship, as an article in Marie Claire recently showed: “The moment you indicate any sort of interest in ISIS, you get 500 new followers on Twitter – it’s a kind of love bombing … It makes it feel more like the recruiter is just like you, a friend.”
Within atheistic, political cults as well, there is an elevation of the revolutionary power of love as an antidote to the loneliness of the capitalist world. In her cult memoir Inside/Out, Alexandra Stein relates that a break-up with a boyfriend was one of the reasons that led her to join the Marxist-Leninist cult The O. “On my own I am nothing,” her diary reads.
She only escaped the cult fifteen years later.
One Big Answer to Everything
The explosive growth of cults began at around the same time as 24-hour global news, after the Vietnam war was televised in 1965. Since then, we’ve been living with an information overload of horror, hatred and conflicting interpretations of events, which has caused ever greater distress and confusion. One effective way to simplify the overload is to filter all information into two camps -right/wrong, black/white, love/hate. The potential cult convert senses the appeal of drastically simplifying her life by adhering to one truth, one perspective and one leader, who will tell her what is right and wrong, and provide one answer to everything. An anonymous survivor of the Heaven’s Gate cult states, “They filled in all the missing pieces of the religions around the world and brought forward the complete truth…[they] could answer all the questions of existence.”
Single-answer, black-and-white thinking proliferates today through internet conspiracy theories, which provide a fertile ground for cult growth. According to a 2018 University of Cambridge study, 60% of people in the UK now believe in one conspiracy theory or another.
The Zeitgeist Movement (TZM) first appeared online in 2008 and grew to have followers in 70 countries by 2018. Tablet, an American Jewish magazine, has called it “the world’s first Internet-based apocalyptic cult.” Like many others who were drawn in by TZM, I came to realize that it was just another cult version of communist totalitarianism, with an eco-futurist façade, anticipating a time in which a vast global supercomputer would calculate the solutions to all the world’s problems.
Finding an answer to everything is attractive to those who can’t stand ambiguity, of course—but even among sceptical, enquiring minds, burn out can lead to surrender to black-and-white cult-think. Alexandra Stein describes group self-critique sessions in The O:
Giving in- dissociating and ceasing to think – is experienced as relief. I remember well this sensation: overwhelmed with confusion and exhaustion … I stopped struggling and decided to commit myself more fully to the group even though I disagreed with it. That too felt like relief – I didn’t have to fight any more.
A Sense of Belonging for the Rootless
Cults offer a sense of community and commitment in an era in which family and community bonds have broken down and modern working and consumption patterns make people feel anonymous, isolated and socially fragmented. As Fleur Brown, who grew up in the Worldwide Church of God, puts it, “In a dog-eat-dog world, who doesn’t want to be part of an intoxicatingly nice community -even, any community?” Jordan Vilchez, a survivor of The People’s Temple, has described the community life that the Rev. Jim Jones built amidst the slums of 70s L.A.:
At that time there was more cheerfulness in People’s Temple, and there was a lot of singing and entertainment in the church. There was a band that played, and the members did short, funny skits … The church gave me a community and a sense of belonging to something that was larger than me, and I felt a sort of pride in that my life had meaning.
Another Jones Cult survivor, Vernon Gosney, a gay black man with an alcoholic mother and a self-described freak, who had been rejected by his family and by other churches, writes that, “[the] Peoples Temple was a family, if a punishing family. It was an intense experience of coming together and living communally with people from all different backgrounds. It satisfied this basic desire I had to connect with all humanity.”
Ironically, while cults promise belonging they, at the same time, demand that members uproot themselves from family and friends, relocating their followers to protected spaces, cut off from the rest of society. Jim Jones relocated over 900 American followers to his planned utopian settlement, Jonestown, in the jungles of Guyana. Other cults grew in remote mountainous hinterlands (Satyananda Ashram, NSW) or in secluded addict outpatient clinics (Community Recovery, Colorado) or were built in fortified, heavily armed, rural enclosures (The Branch Davidians). Belonging to a cult in a distant, closed space that they control means that you no longer belong to the world.
Political Change for Frustrated Idealists
Angered and disappointed with the slow pace of social change in modern societies, idealists can turn to cults, with their promise of immediate, direct action.
When Alexandra Stein joined The O. in the 1970s, “the various collectives were running aground in the absence of a mass movement … Our struggle stuttered … leaving thousands of us hanging, ready to give our all to the movement, only there was no movement.” Against the backdrop of this frustration, Stein was drawn to the O., which undertook direct political action through the Minneapolis food co-operative movement. “People wanted desperately to make change,” she has said, “they wanted leadership, they wanted to be taken seriously.” On deciding to join the O., she declared, “I too, can dedicate myself to something greater than a personal victory.”
The communist Christian cult of Jim Jones also grew out of direct political activism. Jones created effective campaigns for racial integration in Indianapolis in the 1960s. His People’s Temple earned a reputation for helping the cities’ poorest citizens, especially members of racial minorities, drug addicts and the homeless. During the 1970s, the People’s Temple ran state-licensed homes for disabled people, foster children and the elderly. Followers flocked to the People’s Temple, believing they could build a racially integrated socialist society. Hue Fortson, who became an associate pastor of People’s Temple, first heard about the group through his mother: “She was excited because she said it was an interracial group … she was just so excited because she saw this group of people that were all seemingly working together.” This same sentiment was echoed forty years later by members of the women’s self-help cult NXIVM. Former member Sara explains that, “My whole life growing up, I always wanted to do something to impact the world.”
Members of the Church of Scientology are taught that the fate of the entire planet is in their hands. Scientology takes direct action, implementing global Betterment and Humanitarian Programs in the fields of drug rehabilitation, criminal reform, humanitarianism, human rights and mental health reform. Scientology’s spiritual masters are “prepared all over the Globe to solve any problem at a moment’s notice” and the apocalyptic cult has a twenty-six point “plan for world peace.” For impatient, idealistic young people, who believe that they can make an immediate impact on the world, cults can look like a solution.
Friend-O-Sexuality for Those Who Fear Rejection
One of the great stresses of modern life is competitive mate selection. Who will choose you as a partner? How many times must you face rejection? Cults can relieve their followers of this burden. In one famous event, the Rev. Moon of the Moonies (The Unification Church) selected 2,075 couples, who had never met each other before, to be joined in marriage in a single ceremony (at Madison Square Gardens in 1982).
Other cults ban competitive mate selection outright, in favour of collective free love. This occurred with The Children of God and within another Marxist-Leninist therapy cult that Stein studied, The Newman Tendency, who practised friend-o-sexuality: “Not only did Newman [the leader] have sex with … his therapy patients he extended this doctrine to the rest of the group as well, which resulted in the group-norm of ‘bed-hopping.’” Forced Polygamy is also used by The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints and, in the tantric sex cult of Osho, the leader Rajneesh, “taught his followers out of the ordinary sexual practices telling them it would cure them of unrelated phobias, and instructed couples to have sex in front of him.”
Bob Gower joined a San Francisco Sex cult, who believed that “female orgasm is a foundational energy to all life.” Mandatory sex and a ban on competitive partner choice were enforced: “The leader would break and remake couples, often ordering people to pair with someone not to their liking.” This experience made Bob feel “supremely alive, loved, accepted and present,” and provided “things previously missing from my life.”
The promise of guilt-free sex is a powerful recruitment tool. The Family International, previously known as the Children of God, routinely exploited this.
Before their dissolution in 1976, leader Moses David (David Berg) introduced the practice of flirty fishing, an innovative proselytizing method which encouraged female “hookers for Jesus” to “show God’s love” through sexual relations with potential converts. Hundreds of thousands of men, it is claimed, were fished.
Cults thrive by controlling sexual behaviour. Moses David took control of partner choice and consent even further by introducing a law of love, which allowed male cult members to sleep with anyone they wanted – including children as young as eleven.
The desire for bodily self-purification has its roots in Hindu, Buddhist and Christian asceticism. It can be seen in New Age vegan collectives and also manifests within modern consumerism through certain concerns over the ethical production of food.
Bodily self-purification can also lead to cult-think. So many cults have an obsession with the ethical purity of food that Vegan.com has even published a “Short Guide to Vegan-Friendly Religious Cults.” Many cults – like those of Aum Sinrikyo and Osho -involve combinations of meditation and/or yoga, hard manual labour and a strict vegetarian diet. The UFO cult The Universal Industrial Church of the New World Comforter has published vegetarian cookbooks.
Ching Hai, the supreme master of the world’s fastest growing vegan chain, Loving Hut, is a female spiritual leader who claims to have been divinely chosen. She is a “breatharian” who claims that “eating meat will lead to the end of the world.” The breatharians are an extreme body purity cult that emerged from New Age California, netting celebrities like Michelle Pfeiffer as devotees. The breatharians believe that human beings can sustain themselves by living on light: i.e. on a diet of air, water and sunlight. As of 2018, five deaths from starvation had been directly linked to breatharianism. The path from bodily self-purification to extremist cult involvement can be a short one.
Empowerment for Women
Consider Charles Manson’s girls: the young female devotees who joined his cult in the 1960s and helped carry out the brutal murders. Think of the hundreds of red-clad female Osho devotees, who far outnumber his male followers. More recently, many ISIS brides have left western countries to join the death cult. The Telegraph claims that 70% of cult members are women. But why?
The numbers show some correlation with the gender imbalance in church attendance in the US, where 61% of churchgoers are female and only 39% male. One study suggests that most women prefer working together in groups, while men tend to prefer to work alone. Another study has shown that women often exhibit “automatic in-group bias,” favouring the company of other women in the groups within which they work and live (whereas men evince less gender bias). Women’s greater sociability might lead them to cluster within cults.
Dr Elizabeth Puttick, a former member of the Osho cult and the author of Women in New Religions, claims that women are actually empowered by cult membership. She believes that, “Osho saw women as spiritually superior to male disciples and better equipped for becoming enlightened … I had a very positive personal experience … [Osho] offered women a lot of spiritual empowerment.” Puttick claims that, within Osho’s cult and other new religions, women could rise to positions of authority, while “in most organized religions women couldn’t become priests because they were seen as essentially inferior.” She cites Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BK) as an example of a new religion run by women.
However, BK, with its reported 8,500 centres around the world, is a Doomsday cult, based upon the receiving of channelled messages from a spirit that predicts a coming nuclear holocaust and the deaths of 6 billion people, followed by a heaven on earth, exclusively reserved for the cult’s (alleged) 825,000 followers. No matter how empowered the female members claim to be, “Brahma Kumaris women become core members by being fully surrendered, and their prominence derives from their mediumistic capacities, channelling murlis (sermons) from their dead founder.” Their founder, Brahma Baba, was a man. As such, these women “are the instruments or mouthpieces of a male spirit.”
The New York based NXIVM cult (1998–2018) portrayed itself as an international, women-only self-help group, a “secret sorority” and “a women’s movement.” A Hollywood actress was part of its public face and many women enjoyed high rank within the group. In a New York Times interview, a recruit called Michelle relates she decided to join after being approached by a high-profile woman, “someone I really admired from afar … I was super-excited and flattered that she wanted to talk to me … I knew if she was involved, there were probably other badass women involved, and I want to be a badass woman.” What recruits to the secret sorority did not know was that, behind its exclusive codified rituals and closed doors, NXIVM was involved in forced labour and sex trafficking and female members were “blackmailed, beaten and branded.” They were branded with the leader’s initials – and he was a man. While the number of cults that exploit women by offering female camaraderie and empowerment is alarming, their appeal is obvious.
Freedom from Failure—and from Freedom
Among the most fanatical recruits are many who feel like failures and who long for a new beginning. They may have failed in their careers, finances or relationships and cults offer them a powerful solution – sever all links with the past and everyone from it and begin anew. Stein cites the experiences of a recruit to a right-wing extremist cult: “So the order of things in the LaRouche organisation was: Break with your parents and your past, your jobs and your schools … avoid contact with the ‘Outside world.’ Lyn is your Father.” Stein also cites the leader of Iranian cult MEK, who ordered all group members to “divorce your spouse, divest yourself of sexuality and devote your undivided self to me.” In the Osho cult, “Many members were mothers and fathers who left their children behind, since children were generally not welcome…Once indoctrinated by the cult, they valued the group over their own families and many did not return.”
Cults offer a way for someone who has been dismissed as a failure to earn his bread and butter by working for the cult organisation. Usually, the cult provides food and board as payment in kind for work recruiting or tending to the safe haven. Your debts are erased: the mess in your past life is locked away. Every part of your new life – from your earnings, to your sleeping, eating and relationship arrangements – is taken care of by the disciplined daily routine of the cult. Past identities are erased. Cult leaders give their followers new names.
The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. Actually their innermost desire is for an end to the ‘free for all.’ They want to eliminate free competition in the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society … The passion for equality is partly a passion for anonymity: to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic; one thread not distinguishable from the others.
No one can then point fingers at them or measure them against others and expose their inferiority.
A craving for surrender is part of our nature. A recent University of Leeds study has shown that, “it takes a minority of just five per cent to influence a crowd’s direction … the other ninety-five per cent follow without realising it.” The 1951 Asch Conformity Test also demonstrated how easily individuals yield to group influence; the Milgram Obedience Experiment (1961) proved how readily individuals surrender to authority figures. Cult followers demonstrate a passion for submitting to the will of others – and there are obvious dangers in this, as the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments have shown. Subjects who gave in to group or authority pressure permitted themselves to commit acts of violence, without guilt. For some, surrendering individuality is a way to reject individual ethical responsibility. Hoffer cites a young fanatic who had been converted to a group in order “to be free from freedom.” The group were the Nazis.
A Licence to Hate
In our open, tolerant, pluralistic democracies, there are few opportunities to revel in hatred of others. The murderous forces unleashed by social media, with its opportunities for trolling, is a testament to this. One quarter of Americans admit to trolling. Aggrieved social media groups, who take part in mobbing – actively hunting out enemies to destroy online – are driven by a similar subconscious hate mechanism to that which draws new recruits to cults.
A group identity based upon a common object of hatred bonds people powerfully. This was proven by the Stanford prison experiment (1971). The experiment investigated the psychological effects of perceived power: students were separated into two groups – prisoners and prison officers – and instructed to act out specific behaviours. The violence unleashed was so great that the experiment had to be stopped prematurely. While, in recent years, doubts have been expressed as to the scientific accuracy of the experiment, two Western Kentucky University psychologists conducted a variation on the original experiment and also found that “the situation can lead people to do cruel things.” The discovery of torture, sadistic photographs and prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison, Baghdad in 2004 also supports the Stanford findings.
The original Stanford prison experiment was conducted by Dr Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist who later became a cult specialist. According to Zimbardo, “Good people can be induced, seduced and initiated into behaving in evil ways … in irrational, stupid, self-destructive, antisocial and mindless ways when they are immersed in ‘total situations.’” This Lucifer effect operates powerfully in cults.
In cults, hatred begins with defining your group against normal people. For the cult of Gurdjieff, everyone outside was asleep. Right-wing self-help cults call everyday people sheeple. Vegan cults call meat-eaters murderers. The Scientologists believe they have evil enemies, whom they call Suppressive Persons (SP), while anyone who is connected to an SP is a PTS (Potential Trouble Source). Bernardine Dohrn, of the violent Marxist-Maoist terrorist cult The Weather Underground once defined their us-and-them mentality thus: “We’re about being crazy motherf***ers, and scaring the sh*t out of honky America!”—which they did by planting bombs. The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord was a paramilitary Aryan supremacist cult, who believed that the US was populated by white traitors and secretly run by a Z.O.G. (Zionist Occupied Government). The leader of The Children of God called his enemies ACs (Antichrists). Charles Manson used the word pigs to define all his enemies. If he were victorious, he writes, “Los Angeles and all the other pig cities would be in flames. It would be the apocalypse … on the whole sick establishment that hated us and all the other free children.” Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s (Osho) cult of love and peace launched a campaign of intimidation and hatred against a neighbouring town in Oregon resulting in 700 cases of poisoning. In each cult, no matter how much it declares universal love, there is a precise jargon of hatred tied to a vision of escalating fear and violence. The chance to share a hatred within a secret group is a little acknowledged attraction for cult recruits.
Unaware That It Is a Cult
Other reasons why people join cults include hero worship, an attempt to cure addictions, father or mother issues, a recurrent co-dependent relationship pattern, the promise of mental health or wealth or even a nihilistic desire for Armageddon. But the most powerful reason why people join cults is that many don’t even realise that that’s what they’re doing.
As Stein has said in an interview,
no one who’s in a cult knows or thinks it’s a cult. So someone may go to do yoga for fitness or they may join a church or they may, as I did, join a political organization hoping to contribute to social justice … People don’t join cults, they join some kind of organization or relationship or group that they think is going to be beneficial or serve some purpose.
Tragically, the very first thing that drew you to a cult is the thing that will keep you there. Whether it was sisterhood, an end to loneliness, a way to save the planet, an enemy to hate or a fresh start – the cult will, by subtle means, let you know that that thing you wanted from them can be taken away at any moment. If you do not take the next step towards commitment, you will lose your new friends and your new hope. You’ll be alone again, you will fail to grow spiritually, you will not have to helped save the planet or the poor. Instead, you will have disappointed people who care about you. You will never be healthy or pure now, you will be directionless, lost, your access to a better future will be closed off. The cult catastrophises these possible negative outcomes to make you feel ashamed of your indecision over commitment. So you attend that weekend course, help in the communal kitchen or lend a hand with recruitment flyers. For fear of losing the new hope the cult has given you, you’ll do that little thing they ask, to prove that you are becoming more involved. As Deborah Layton, a survivor of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple aptly puts it, “They change so gradually, by the time you realize you’re entrapped -and almost everybody does – you can’t figure a safe way back out.”