Respect your elders; cults certainly do. They respect elders' retirement incomes, investment portfolios and paid-for homes. No longer satisfied with recruiting wide-eyed and penniless youths, the cults have shifted their focus to older people - even those who have little more to offer than their Social Security checks or small pensions.
From the Branch Davidians in Waco to the Church universal and Triumphant nationwide, cults are obeying the cardinal rule of all confidence games: Follow the money. In exchange, they are offering everything from health to political change to the kingdom of heaven. Says Reg Alev, former executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago-based information and referral group: "As a compass points to the North Pole, cults point toward the money." And as [Rick Ross cult expert and] deprogrammer adds, "The elderly are a cult's bread and butter."
Experts across the U.S. support those charges. So do the numbers.
As many as a million current cult members are over 50, estimates Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program of the American Family Foundation, a national organization founded to educate the public about destructive cults. In 1982 Rudin unearthed a document from a major cult that declared its intent to target older people. It urged individuals over 50 to join and "set the example for youth." It went on: "We are especially proud of our octogenarians and septuagenarians, but we have many in the golden years of the 50's and 60's who come aglow with the rapture of the ascended masters shining in their faces and the Holy Spirit in their hearts."
At least five people age 50 and over were among David Koresh's followers who perished in the fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas last year. The number would have been much higher had not many of the older individuals left in the weeks before the showdown. (See our story about two of them, "Tales from the Cult," below.)
In the Bible-oriented mind-control groups that embrace entire families, it's not uncommon for up to 50 percent of the membership to be over 50, according to David Clark, an exit-counselor and court-certified cult expert based in the Philadelphia area.
Approximately 40 percent of all those involved in cult-like New Age groups are over 50, says Kevin Garvey, a Connecticut-based expert who specializes in helping businesses deal with the impact of cults.
There are 2,000 to 5,000 cults in the U.S. today with 3 to 5 million full-fledged members, according to University of California at Berkeley adjunct psychology professor emeritus Margaret Singer, Ph.D., who has studied cults for 25 years and treated more than 3,000 former members. Add the 10 to 20 million Americans who have had some involvement with cults at one time or another, she notes, and you have some idea of the magnitude of the cult movement.
Going for the gold
It's the accumulation of wealth that brought America's older population into the sights of America's cults. The financial stakes can be enormous for anyone, especially for those who have little hope of rebuilding their life's saving once they give all they have to some group.
Peter Georgiades, a Pittsburgh attorney who has represented dozens of families in efforts to recover funds given to cults, has seen firsthand the destruction such bodies can cause seniors. "I get two to six calls a week from people who have lost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the claims are small I tell them to get a local attorney and settle for what they can get," says Georgiades, who rarely takes a case under $100,000.
"I know of a number of cases in which people have impoverished themselves," says Herbert Rosedale, a New York lawyer who has handled numerous cult cases. "It runs the gamut from people who were solicited to make six-figure donations to those who have nothing but their Social Security checks to give." Bottom line, according to Rosedale: "It's devastating - both to individuals and to their families."
One example Rosedale cites involved a very successful older businessman who took part in a seemingly innocuous management discussion group. "As it turned out," Rosedale says, "it was a front for a very aggressive cult. And before he knew it the man had turned over all of his retirement savings in exchange for a series of business courses. He couldn't tell his adult children. In fact he wouldn't under any circumstances, let us tell his children or elicit their help in recovering his funds. He was literally terrified that they would find out and he would lose their respect."
Opening the door
That a number of older people are being recruited into cults is no accident ,but the result of a sophisticated strategy many of the major groups are carrying out on a nationwide scale. They may contact subjects through nursing homes, hospitals, senior centers, and even go into the homes of sick, lonely and other extremely vulnerable individuals. There are cases in which health-care professionals have recruited older people into cults, says Barbara Martin, assistant director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio - the only rehabilitation center in the U.S. for former cult members.
Members also come from such extremely unlikely settings as stress reduction, meditation and health-rehabilitation classes. Lawyer Rosedale knows of a case where a couple got involved by joining a local little theater group. "It's classic bait and switch," says Martin.
The fact is that cults prey on older people who are looking for answers, trying to come to terms with a series of major life changes - the loss of a spouse, children leaving home, long-term illness, even their own mortality. "I know of cases where cults found vulnerable widows, widowers and other grieving individuals by reading the obituary pages," says Martin.
The institutional connection
Hospitals and nursing homes can be recruiting spots for cults. These institutions seldom screen or monitor individuals who visit patients. Jews for Jesus ( a multimillion-dollar fundamentalist Christian missionary organization) may not meet all definitions of a cult, but its recruiting practices are indicative of tactics cults, or cult-like organizations, use.
According to Ellen Kamentsky, a former member of and recruiter for the group, elders are perfect targets because they are "easy to influence, often home, plentiful, and lonely."
In her book, Hawking God (Saphire Press, 1992), Kamentsky tells how she would wander through nursing homes unchallenged. "No one ever stopped me. The authorities probably thought I was someone's granddaughter; they were happy to have someone visit." She would address patients by their names, which she would get off the doors to their rooms, and ask if they'd like some company. They usually accepted. "On the first visit they did most of the talking," says Kamentsky, who admits she worked "like a skilled talk-show host," all the while just waiting to "unleash my true agenda."
Because of actions like these some nursing homes have now instituted safeguards to protect residents from such exploitation. Manor HealthCare Corp., a company based in Silver Spring, Maryland, that operates more than 160 nursing homes nationwide, employs professional clergy at many of its locations. In addition to meeting the spiritual needs of residents who ask for that service, these people also function as gatekeepers to ward off approaches like the one Kamentsky describes.
Older people are at a very sensitive place in their lives, explains Reverend Daniel Kratz, director of chaplains for Manor. "They are trying to make sense of it all, to arrive at life's meaning, to see what they have accomplished." It becomes a "religious issue. It is even a religious issue for atheists."
Ripe for the picking
Cults and cult-like organizations are also designing claims and benefits that attract older people. Says Wellspring's Martin: "For example, leaders of the Eternal Flame, now called CBJ, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, teach that people are programmed for death and that they need a 'cellular awakening' to be physically immortal. 'Cellular intercourse' with other 'immortals' is required and that involves lots of hugging, hand-holding, and personal affirmation of one another in group contacts."
Arnold Markowitz, director of a New York-based cult hotline and clinic operated by the Jewish Board of Family & Children's Services, recalls the case of an older woman who became involved with "one of those self-help, Eastern meditation groups to help her high blood pressure" after she saw a flyer publicizing a free lecture on meditation and yoga and went to the group's center. Eventually she gave the group all her money. After they "came to her apartment and took her furnishings - rugs, antiques, artwork - to sell." Then they started to harass her. When her niece finally realized what was happening, she found the older woman malnourished and hiding out because she was terrified of running into cult members on the street.
"In the end the women had to go into a nursing home because she had nothing left," says Markowitz. "Even her health was gone."
The following stories illustrate some other popular ploys.
Margaret Dodd became involved with Transcendental Meditation in her late 40's because it promised to help her control her dangerously high blood pressure and cholesterol. The retired teacher stayed with TM for ten years. Initially, she felt her health benefited from it - but there were other unsettling consequences.
"I became spacey, disconnected. I could see that what they were doing was very similar to Asian forms of mind control that dictate what you eat, when you sleep, and who you talk to." The financial costs to Dodd were not overwhelming because, she says, she did not have that much to begin with. But she had even less when she left. She quit her job to pursue TM studies. She sold her house and used her savings to pay tuition. "I knew others," she adds, "who went to Europe to study and came back $50,000 in debt. There were a lot of well-off people recruited into the TM movement."
Escaping the cults
No matter where recruitment takes place, or how long involvement lasts, once a person becomes involved with a cult-like group, leaving can be extremely hard - sometimes impossible. I can be even more difficult for older individuals because time is critical to the recovery process. And time is what older people don't have a lot of.
"When someone leaves a cult, his problems are just beginning," says Rudin of the American Family Foundation." It can leave a very big hole in a person's life, You've cut yourself off from other people. And to recover you must rebuild those bridges. You have to rebuild your self-esteem and deal with the rage and the shame. And sometimes you have to take care of the practical things: jobs, credit, bank accounts, a place to live, health care, etc...."
Caroline Marshall knows all that. "My life was undergoing radical change. The Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) company I worked for was in Chapter 11 and I was losing my job. A personal relationship was breaking up and my children were all away and busy with their own lives." Marshall drifted toward Ramtha, a New Age cult based on the teachings of J.Z. Knight, a Washington state housewife who claims to be the entity through which a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit speaks. "Before I knew it, I was caught up. It's far easier than people think," she says.
Thus, at the age of 58, Marshall left the East and moved to Washington to pursue her studies of Ramtha. It was a decision that cost her two years and approximately $30,000 in savings.
As Marshall's involvement increased, she became more and more concerned. The warnings of impending natural and economic disasters were extremely intense and included talk about a race of underground space aliens conspiring with the United States government and feeding on human beings.
Finally, Marshall's son helped her make a break.
Anna Hoover didn't leave her cult as willingly. For seven years she was a member of the Church Universal and Triumphant. "One day my husband asked me to come home and pick up a package," she says. When she got to the house her entire family, plus three deprogrammers, were waiting. "I was angry. I felt betrayed. It took several days of talking before I could simmer down and start to listen. Even though I was grateful to my family, it took a long time to get over that anger."
Hoover calls her experience "a rape- spiritual and psychological rape. It almost destroyed me."
Martin points out another often forgotten segment of the older population who, although not directly involved with cults, are nonetheless their victims: those who are forced to live a life of total estrangement from their children, and sometimes their grandchildren, who are cult members. "I've seen people suffer unbelievable pain because their loved ones during a time of life when that contact is practically essential" says Martin. "They feel that loss every moment of every day for the rest of their lives."
Another burning issue for former cult members is regaining some kind of spiritual orientation in their lives, according to Michael Langone, Ph.D., editor of Recovery from Cults (Norton, 1993). He did a study in which 87 percent of the respondents said they had some religious affiliation before joining a cult, while 54 percent said they had none at all after leaving the cult.
"People become gun-shy," Langone says. "If you're young you have time to work through this - but for an older person, to be alienated from religion is, I believe, a sad thing."
A long, dark process
It's virtually impossible to anticipate the physical and emotional trauma cult association can unleash. It can also lead to irreplaceable economic devastation, particularly for older people. And that's just the beginning of the long, dark process.
The seduction starts out caring and comfortable. Eventually, it becomes cruel and castrating. By the time a victim realized what has happened - if he or she ever does - it's often too late. Worse, the destruction can never be fully undone.