The call of the cult

When news broke last year that a Malaysian woman had been held captive in London for three decades, we shook our heads in disbelief. But Sarah Andrews asks: could any one of us fall victim to a cult?

Elle/May 7, 2014

By Sarah Andrews

On a brisk October morning in London last year, Josephine Herivel, a 57-year-old Irish woman, called a charity hotline she had seen on television and appealed for help. Over the coming weeks, as Josephine’s hidden life was revealed, the story that emerged was both shocking and heartbreaking.

For 30 years, Herivel had been kept captive in a flat in Brixton, London, along with two other women – 69-year-old Malaysian Siti Aishah Abdul Wahab and 30-year-old Briton Prem Davis, who was reportedly born into captivity. Just over a month after that phone call, a 73-year-old man, Aravindan Balakrishnan – also known as “Comrade Bala” – and his wife, Chanda Balakrishnan, were arrested on suspicion of slavery and forced labour.

The Balakrishnans were ardent political activists who had been involved in Communism in the 1970s, before eventually starting their own separate Maoist-based movement. But for all the equality they championed in their leftist ideals, the Balakrishnans’ own supporters had become prisoners.

British organisation Freedom Charity, whose number Herivel had seen on television, rescued the three women in a surprise joint operation with the police. The charity has since been helping them to begin healing from the incredible trauma they have suffered. “It was a very difficult period for them,” the charity’s founder, Aneeta Prem, told ELLE Malaysia from London. “And having freedom has been equally difficult.”

Speaking to the British media after the women’s release, Prem said they had been living in “horrific” conditions. Commander Steve Rodhouse of Scotland Yard added that the women had been bound by “invisible handcuffs” and subject to emotional control during their 30 years of captivity.

The Malaysian captive, Aishah, first went to the United Kingdom in 1968 as a scholarship student, but became so embroiled in political activities that she lost touch with her family. In an emotional reunion with her sister, Kamar Mautum, in London weeks after her release, Aishah could barely remember how to speak Malay and was unaware her mother had died 19 years earlier. Kamar also said in a video interview that family members had tried to look for her sister, but Aishah had refused all contact for the past 30 years.

Closer to home, Maggie* shares her experiences with a Kuala Lumpur-based religious organisation, which she left seven months ago. “I joined in 2004 because we were told we could stay the way we were, while adopting the teachings into our life. But over time, more and more of our lives were taken away,” she says.

“By the end, our daily activity was monitored on webcams. When we slept, how often we saw our families, and what we said on Facebook were all controlled. Close friends spied on each other. People were verbally abused and beaten. All of us lived in fear every day.”

Most people question why anyone would willingly subject themselves to such misery for as long as Maggie or the women in London did. We wonder: why don’t they just leave? Words like “cult” and “slavery” get bandied about in such situations. But these terms are broad, sensationalist and not always helpful in understanding the experience.

And are we really sure we are so different from these women anyway? Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are involved in threatening power dynamics every day, albeit on a much smaller scale. Have you ever felt belittled in a relationship? Suffered a domineering boss at work? Been pressured into doing things you’re uncomfortable with by friends? All of us are capable of feeling oppressed, or of oppressing others in turn; perhaps the only difference is that we can summon the inner strength and self-confidence to stop the situation spiralling into something truly damaging in the long term.

Nobody sets out wanting to lose her power, join a cult or marry a man who will beat her. But disempowerment isn’t a sudden event; it’s slow-growing, insidious and quiet. And those who are experiencing personal problems are more vulnerable to it. It’s easy to see how such people might join potentially dangerous groups if seeking support or answers.

American psychologist and life coach Dr Patricia Millar, who works with such trauma victims, says young people are more likely to join cult-like groups because they’re trying to work out how they fit into the world, or they yearn to do something significant with their life.

But more convincing than the cause and its ideals is the cult’s leader. Followers flocked to Charles Manson of the infamous Manson Family for his looks and charm, while James and Deborah Green, who founded the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps, drew people in with their larger-than-life presence and convincing rhetoric. 

Mike Kropveld, executive director of non-profit organisation Info Cult and board member of the International Cultic Studies Association, compares the recruitment process to a seduction. “You buy into [the group] and you think, ‘I’ve found what I’ve been looking for. This responds to everything I’ve been thinking about.’ You become enamoured with it.”

Dr Millar reports being recruited into the Lafayette Morehouse, a counter-culture group, at age 17. “I was genuinely curious and cared about what the group was accomplishing. I felt that maybe I could be a part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to be in a relationship with other people.”

Initially, the group meets the recruit’s needs and makes them feel like they’re making brave, independent choices. It makes them feel special, but it is also this sense of distinction that’s used to prevent them from leaving.

“[The leader] creates a dynamic where you’re only a favourite as long as he says so,” says Dr Millar, who was counted among the “inner circle” but also suffered sexual exploitation and physical abuse while in the group. “Then you’re going to fall out of favour and you’re going to feel you have to strive to get back in favour.”

Both Millar and Kropveld highlight the huge role that blame and guilt play in the cult/follower relationship. Over time, this creates feelings of discomfort or doubt in the follower, but within a closed structure, individuals are taught to think that any unhappiness is their own doing. Followers begin to deny self-interests, and channel personal power and decision-making to the larger body.

There’s a basic need for survival within any social system, but, in cult-like groups, the requirement to stay within the fold is constantly raised. Members must go to further and further lengths to maintain their place among their peers.

“We worked longer and longer hours, often more than 24 hours at a stretch,” says Maggie. “We had to take on more and more responsibilities to show that we cared about the organisation. We did everything from praying to fundraising and construction work to sitting in 15-hour meetings. If we complained, we were told we were being selfish.”

Throughout history cults have relied on extreme measures of control. Sexual abuse was rampant in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Children of God communities; forced mass suicides were imposed by sects such as Heaven’s Gate and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple; and physical attacks on the public formed the pinnacle of the ideologies of groups like Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo, which was behind the devastating sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Each case is unique in its methods and activities, which is why internet lists of “cult warning signs” are largely unhelpful. Instead, Kropveld advocates examining how individuals function within the group. Every person’s experience will vary, depending on factors such as their external support system, their background, their beliefs and what they’re ultimately seeking.

Some stay, even though they’re deeply miserable, because the cost of leaving is just too great. “You [may be] losing a group, a belief system. What are you going back to? Depending on who you are, how long you’ve been in, what your situation is, those costs can be higher or lower,” says Kropveld.

Drawing on self-determination theories – which consider primarily a person’s internal motivations – Dr Millar highlights how important it is to listen to and trust our feelings.

“If someone is in a situation that they’re finding unbearable and having thoughts that they cannot live like this, that’s their own feedback system. They’re giving themselves important information about what they need. If there’s a separation where you’ve lost yourself or you cannot say what the benefit is to me, then that’s a huge warning sign. You have to start to trust yourself,” she says.

But reaching out to someone can be a monumental challenge. Abusers systematically isolate individuals from any external contact. Prem shares that the largest factor preventing people from contacting their charity for help sooner is that they’ve been so strongly “conditioned to believe that there isn’t anything else out there for them”.

Sometimes, the greatest resistance to leaving a group comes from the victim themself. Trauma counsellors often advise that the best course of action is to simply leave the door open, wait for the day they are ready to walk through it, and support them. “Don’t pick an argument about the value of a practice with your daughter, because she’s committed to it,” says Dr Millar. “Speak to something in her that is non-threatening, that would motivate. Be in the flow of a positive experience and connection, while expressing your love for her.”

When the situation gets unbearable, abuse victims are more likely to trust this neutral relationship to confide in.

While we may not be locked in a London flat for decades, or ever believe we could be, as long as we’re interacting with people, we are open to myriad social influences and power plays. Herivel, Aishah and Davies would probably never have anticipated being victims of psychological abuse and slavery. They’re free now, but face a long road to recovery. There’s still the court case to battle through, which is currently underway.

Prem says victims suffer from having their self-worth and morale “broken”. All the years of conditioning will have to be reversed and their identities rebuilt. Above all, the women will need to relearn who they are and trust that, in this power dynamic, it is their own instincts that will yield the most strength.

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