I did a "study abroad" scheme in North America when I was a student. After leaving university, I decided to return permanently.
It was the 70s and I moved to Toronto. Everything went very well. I made a very large and active group of friends and I was known as being the one who organised things. I came from a farming background in Lancashire; if one of my friends had asked me what I thought a cult was, I'd have replied 'a young horse'. I had no idea what I was about to be dealing with.
Six years into my stay in Toronto, I was doing some shopping at a major intersection in town when a very attractive woman approached me. I was very single at the time, so I was quite amenable when she asked if I’d like to take part in a survey.
She asked me a series of short questions and ticked off my answers on a clipboard. What did I think of the world? Could the world be a better place? The whole thing was done in less than a minute. At the end, she said: "The way you’ve answered these questions I think you might be interested in joining a community group." I wasn’t sure. She said: "Isn’t it time you gave something back to to the community in which you live?" Part of me respected her to have the guts to say that, and part of me felt rather guilty and selfish. So I agreed to go along the following week.
I paid $2 to get into the meeting, where there was a speaker in her early 30s who started talked about herself and how she’d become an alcoholic. I was bored to tears by the whole affair; when a break was called I started to head for the door. Then I realised people were spreading out lots of free food. I’d paid my money so I thought I might as well make the most of it. I took some food and went outside for a smoke.
As I lit up, I was approached by another woman who said they had a course to show you how to quit. I'm asthmatic, and as I was suffering from chest irritations at the time, I acquiesced. What harm could come of it?
The course cost $225 and took place over two evenings and a weekend in a motel on the outskirts of the city. By the end of the course I’d handed over $1550 - all the money in my account at the time. I was as high as a kite. One night I drove home at 115 mph, feeling invincible, and convinced that if the police tried to catch me they wouldn’t be able to. I was a law unto myself; I felt like one of the elite.
The following Monday I went into work and resigned from my job. My roommate didn’t know what to do with me. Soon I was out on the street like the woman who first approached me, soliciting funds and doing whatever I was told.
A month or so later, a journalist on a national paper did a front page expose of the group I was in. The article said that the group’s techniques (I later found out they amounted to mind control) had put someone in psychiatric care
My world collapsed. The first thing I did was call the other members of the group. I went to a party they were having, but the number two in command was very aggressive when I tried to talk to him about the story. I phoned the journalist who wrote it and he put me in contact with someone else who had already escaped from the group. Together, they helped me out.
It took me about 11 months of withdrawal, which today would be labelled post traumatic stress disorder, before I was fully myself again. Later, I tried going back to meetings to get other members out. I managed it with six of them.
When I got back to the UK a few years later I set up the Cult Information Centre , which has helped hundreds of people in the same situation.
I don’t see any difference between the groups that I hear of today: the leaders’ names might change, their philosophies might change, but their techniques are always the same. They use psychological coercion, thought control, radicalisation techniques, food and sleep deprivation, and frequent inductions of a trance-like state.
And they work best on people with above average intelligence. A flexible mind is a healthy mind. And that’s what they exploit.
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