Academics estimate that there are tens of thousands of new religious movements - often referred to as cults - worldwide. The majority are said to be in Africa and Asia. Here in Britain, it's thought there are between 500 and 1,000 new religious movements, or cults - though some say that figure is a conservative estimate. VoR’s Juliet Spare is joined by three guests - two of them former cult members - for this in-depth discussion.
Juliet is joined by:
Ian Haworth, founder and current general secretary of the Cult Information Centre, a non-sectarian educational charity based in London, England. He has worked full-time as a specialist in cults since 1979 and is a former cult member.
Lynne Wallis, who has written extensively for newspapers on cults and families affected by new religious movements – cults – including an article for the Times Educational Supplement in 2008 called 'Cult Watch' detailing the danger cults pose to young people.
Natacha Tormey, author of ‘Born into the Children of God: My Life in a Religious Sex Cult’ and ‘Cults: The Bloodstained History of Organised Religion’. Natacha Tormey was born and raised within The Children of God, a religious cult that became infamous for its bizarre sexual practices and religious doctrines. Natacha escaped at 18.
How did you leave?
NT: “It was quite a long process, so the doubt started when I was 14 years of age when most teenagers are starting their rebellious years, so to speak. Obviously, on top of the usual teenage angst I had that additional circumstance of being, living in a cult… At that time we were in France – it was very difficult because we had to, kind of, hide everything we did all the time. Live, but in secrecy, and never talk about what was going on at home or that we were part of a cult. That’s really when all of my doubts started.”
“As I got older, going on to 16 – 17, I started to have a little bit more interaction with the outside world and slowly I began to realise just how strange my living situation was. By the time I reached 18, that was it…”
Did you have interaction with the outside world at any point in your time there?
NT: “Up until the age of 13 almost none. So, in Thailand and the Asian countries that we lived in, we lived in very big communes, sometimes of 100 – 150 people. Very much your typical compound community – you’ve got very high walls, big security gates… It was a very well-run operation in the sense that they managed to go unnoticed with these huge communes living together. They didn’t actually attract that much attention, but obviously, children weren’t allowed to leave the compound. When we did, it was very rare and we would always be supervised by adults either to go fundraising by doing shows or things like that.”
“So, it [contact with the outside world] was very minimal for the first 13 years. And then when we moved to France. Obviously there you couldn’t have those kinds of big communes – they would have been noticed straight away. It was very small – usually just my family and then one or two other people, so there was obviously more freedom. They couldn’t watch us all the time… We had very small interactions and then by the time I reached 16, I was kind of jumping out my window at night…”
What were the questions you were asking yourself when you were there? You started questioning your existence within this cult at 13 to 18 and at 18 you were jumping out the window, wanting to leave – was there a catalyst for this?
NT: “Well, a very key moment, obviously the doubt started slowly, was in 2000 when they predicted, I think it was the third or the fourth prediction of the end of the world… And it didn’t happen. We were all extremely afraid on New Year’s Eve. We had a stash of food, we were prepared for Armageddon basically, and yet again it didn’t happen. That, for me, was kind of the final straw. That’s when I really realised that this is just all lies and none of it is true.”
You’d wake up in the morning, and what would be expected of you?
NT: “It would depend on which period we’re talking about. In Thailand, where it was much stricter in those kinds of communes, all the children were separated into groups and we all had very strict schedules. So it was – you wake up, you’ve got ten minutes to make your bed and get dressed. All the kids wore uniforms and whoever was looking after us we would call auntie or uncle. It was just very-very regimented. Everyone was marched downstairs in single file for breakfast. You had a certain amount of time to eat and then everyone was marched back upstairs. Many hours had been spent reading – either the stories from the Bible or publications from the leader Berg [David Brandt Berg] or Zerby [Karen Zerby]. In some homes you had school time which again is not really school. Apart from learning how to read and write it was all based around the cult leader’s theology and his beliefs. All of our education about history and science was all according to the cult leader’s version, with a lot of religion mixed in.”
Ian Haworth, what made you set up the Cult Information Centre and would you say it’s very widely used and known?
IH: “It is known internationally and it’s very easy to find in the UK just by going online. What provoked me to set up the centre is that I came back to the UK in 1987 from Canada where I’d been doing this – I set up the first charity of this kind there. So what really provoked me to get into the field is what provoked me to set up the first charity in Canada, which was called COMA – Council on Mind Abuse. And it was just that I’d gone through a nightmare experience in a group. I’d only been in a group for two and a half weeks and I managed to escape, thanks to a journalist. It took me eleven months to recover and in that recovery time the tragic deaths in Jonestown, Guyana occurred where 913 people died following the orders of Jim Jones. I realised that that could have happened to me. I could relate to those people...”
“When the Canadian media started to ask – is this a problem in our country? I went forward and said – yes it is… That led to a lot of media coverage and then my desire to try and be involved in an educational process to try and warn people. That’s how it all started.”
You called it mind abuse. Is this something that we don’t really understand?
IH: “Most people have no idea what constitutes psychological coercion or mind control, or radicalisation. I’m using my terms carefully because radicalisation, although it’s usually used in connection with terrorist groups, it’s the same thing as what we’ve been describing as mind control or psychological coercion or thought reform for many years.”
“People are processed to become terrorists. People are processed to become cult victims.”
“In my case, I was 31 when I was recruited into a group. I was theirs… I was completely under their control by the third day. I mention this because I want to emphasise how quick this process is. After just two evenings and one morning on a course in Toronto – I was theirs. I gave them all the money I had, dedicated my life to it and resigned from my job. As you know, I fortunately managed to escape very quickly thanks to a journalist helping me.”
Do you think in Britain, there is a lack of understanding of the techniques used in mind abuse?
IH: “Well of course ‘it’s never going to happen to me’ is normally the attitude. I think people that do consider what a cult might be assume that it’s probably some kind of strange organisation that will be visually identifiable, that a cult recruiter will therefore be obvious when he or she approaches you, that probably the people that are recruited are not very intelligent, they’re probably on drugs anyway and people make all kinds of excuses as to why someone would join. What we’re saying is that people don’t join, they are recruited instead. And they’re recruited through subtle techniques and the techniques work and work very effectively.”
“The easiest people to recruit tend to be well-educated people. People with average to above average intelligence and they think it would never happen to them. The safest seem to be the very seriously mentally ill which isn’t very comforting.”
Lynne Wallis, what made you write about cults?
LW: “It was a long time ago when I started actually – probably more than 15 years. I think I met somebody who lost her daughter to a group, probably better not mention their name. Her daughter had been working in a West End department store, she’d just left university, she was new to London… I think this is a very common time for people to be recruited, when they’re in a new city and they’re vulnerable, sometimes when they just start university. She came one evening and said she’d been invited to a women’s meeting at Wembley and it turned out to be a recruitment fair for this particular group and very-very quickly she was sucked in. This woman Betty, her daughter was receiving messages on her mobile, she was being loved. She was being told she was awesome and within about a month she’d lost weight, she wasn’t eating properly, she lost her sense of humour… In other words, she’d undergone a complete personality transformation. She’d really had her own personality sucked out of her and everything had been replaced by values of this group.”
“Then I met Ian Haworth and he put stories my way sometimes and I’ve written and interviewed probably scores, not hundreds, but scores of ex-members of groups, but also families who’ve lost sons and daughters.”
As a journalist what would you say is the legacy you’ve witnessed that these cults have had on individuals and families you mention? You’re highlighting an issue – do you think it needs to be highlighted further?
LW: “I think it does. I think awareness is very-very low. I think Ian is absolutely right that everyone says it could never happen to me. It could happen to anyone at a particular time in their lives when they’re vulnerable. I think it should probably be on the curriculum – kids going off to university, their parents warn them about STDs, drugs and alcohol but whoever thinks to tell them about the damage these groups can do? Even the parents think it can’t happen to their children.”
“I think it really is high-time that something should be done because this has being going on too long…”
IH: “This is one of the things that we do. We go out and give lectures. I’m spending an entire day this week at a school that has this on the curriculum but as Lynne has suggested that’s not necessarily the norm. But I do go around various schools and colleges and sometimes universities to talk about this phenomenon. I sometimes speak to professional groups as well because they’re losing people to the cults. A lot of people imagine that the typical recruit is young but it happens at all ages. Captains of industries are being recruited into cults as well.”
It sounds like a very aggressive style of recruitment. Could you tell me more about that?
IH: “Everyone that’s recruited is programmed to understand that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Your critical abilities are now severely impaired and so if the group says that two and two is seven, it is and you excitedly share that with people.”
“The two main goals seem to be to bring in money and to bring in people. It’s quite normal to be sent out to recruit others. Now, if you were in a cult that we would call a therapy cult where you stay in your job, then you’d be doing that after hours and on weekends. If you’re in your typical religious cult where you’re working for the group full-time then you’re doing that [recruiting] full-time. You’re constantly going out there and trying to recruit people usually by, unfortunately, lying to them and misrepresenting what it is that you stand for. If people that you’re talking to ask questions then you’ll be very vague all of a sudden about what’s really going on because they just want you to cross the threshold and then a psychological door closes behind you.”
“As Lynne was saying, you become someone else… It’s interesting we’re doing Voice of Russia because I often compare this with Russian dolls. The real you is now covered over by a new personality. That’s the outer doll, if you will, and that’s the one that interacts with family and friends and the world. The real you, however, the good news is, is inside. Getting that real you out is another matter altogether and there’s no guarantee that that will ever happen…”
LW: “…And in this recruitment process I think quite early on anyone who dares to challenge anything that is said by any of the leaders in one of their brainwashing mind control obsessions, punishment and reward is introduced. Someone will be shunned, maybe ostracised if they’d dare to disagree. Obviously in any kind of healthy environment, perhaps in an actual proper cosier religion, questioning is encouraged, but within these groups it’s quashed very early on.”
Natacha, having heard from both Ian and Lynne, why do you think people don’t understand cults or are scared to talk about them?
NT: “I think what Ian is saying is completely correct. I think people underestimate how powerful cults are when it comes to recruitment. So, if we take the Children of God for example, who still exist today or even back when I was a teenager, they operated in African countries under fake names. They had humanitarian organisations with completely different names to the Children of God or Family International which they are now called. They’d be out there – these homes with all these young couples with kids, aged 20 to 30, all living together, having a great time, doing all this humanitarian work.”
“For many young people who would bump into them it would be like ‘why, this is amazing, I could do something with my life, I can help others and help save the world!’ But behind all of that is a completely different story. Once you get pulled in through that exciting new world very quickly the trap closes and you find out that actually you only saw the tip of the iceberg here – now you’re going to see the real deal. But by then, it’s usually too late. You’re completely sucked in and it’s very difficult to get out after that.”
“Like Lynne was saying – voicing doubts… Anyone who dares to voice doubts even at the beginning, either they’ll be completely rejected or punished. In a psychological way it’s a means of control and is a warning to other members that you cannot contradict the leadership. So, often in the Children of God for example, people who were considered severe doubters would be separated from their spouse or their children…”
“One thing I talk about in my book is when my mother dared to defend one of her children who was being very harshly physically disciplined by other aunties and uncles in the home, and she dared to say something against it and was sent to Chelyabinsk for six months when she was pregnant…”
“High radiation, minus forty degrees – she was being taught a lesson by the leadership that this is what will happen to you and we can keep you there if we want to and we can send you somewhere else and you may never see your children again. And this was as much a lesson to my father, who was left behind as ‘you better keep your wife in check.’ So it’s all these psychological things, but all done in a very, how do you call it…”
LW: “It’s for your own good.”
NT: “Yes, it’s for your own good. This is the Lord trying to teach you a lesson. This is good for you, this is good for your family, it will make you a better disciple, etc.”
What is like when you speak to the families?
LW: “They’re devastated… It’s like a living bereavement. If that person is still in the group and there’s all sorts of conflicting advice about whether you should try and get the child out, they normally have an incredibly hard time making contact – someone else will answer the phone or they’re not around. They just don’t know what to do. They are at a loss… Sometimes that child, their green light will come on and they’ll come out and have some counselling or something. But I know several families who have had sons and daughters in for years and I think, I don’t know if this is right Ian, but isn’t it true that the longer they’re in, the less likely it is that they will come out – is that right?”
IH: “Not as far as I’m concerned. Some people do say that, you’re quite right. I’ve never said that. Some have said in the past that after a particular point in time, that’s it. But I’ve never seen any kind of need for saying that. I’ve known people who have come out of cults after 30 years and have fully recovered…”
Is it possible for everyone to recover? Have you found your recovery path through writing a book was therapeutic Natacha?
NT: “Definitely! Writing the book was the final step in my healing process, but I’ve been out of the cult for twelve years now and it’s taken that long. It’s like Lynne was saying earlier, the process of manipulation for someone who joins a cult is stripping down that personality and replacing it with this cult personality. But when you’re born into a cult, you never have the chance to form that personality at the start. So the road to recovery and the first big question is – who am I? What is my personality? You don’t even know who you are as a person! What kind of clothes do I like to wear? What’s my style? Everything has to be learned from scratch about yourself and then after that you can start properly healing. But it takes years and it’s taken me years to go through that, and finally get to a point where I actually know who I am and I’m comfortable with it. I can move on…”
If you had a chance to speak to those people who are on the cusp of wanting to change, who are in the same cult you were in, what would you say?
NT: “…I’d say that I know how scary it is to even contemplate facing a world that you’ve never known or that you’ve lost touch with for many years. But once you get out there you realise that there’s actually nothing to be afraid about and that there’s actually a lot of people who understand. And who won’t judge you! And I think that’s a big thing! Especially people who have joined a cult voluntarily – they feel like somehow no one’s going to understand, they’re going to blame me, they’re going to think I was stupid, that I deserve whatever happens to me. People don’t see it like that. There are plenty of professionals out there and institutes like the Cult Information Centre that are there to help! And they understand and know that you’re victims, you’re not actually thinking in your right mind. So, it’s really not judging yourself and accepting that you are a victim and you need help… I think that’s the biggest difficulty for some.”
IH:” There is another thing here and that is, it’s not the best thing to put on your CV when you’re looking for a job. That’s one of the problems here because there are a lot of high-profile people who are ex-cult members who would not dare do what Natacha’s bravely doing, and talk about their story.”
“I know a senior partner in a major law firm in this city who is an ex-cult member. And I know other people in other similar institutions, and there are teachers and there are doctors who are ex-cult members. It’s not something you really want to broadcast because you might lose some clients, if not all of them…”
“And yet, there are, as Natacha says, lots of people who are aware of the phenomenon and help is available.”
Do the right people seem to understand the level of exploitation of this mind abuse?
IH: “No, I don’t believe they do. The mental health profession is sorely lacking in an understanding of this phenomenon. There used to be one psychiatrist in Britain that was really good and could help just about anybody. Sadly she died about five years ago. There is another psychiatrist now that is up on this, but because she works on the NHS she can only deal with clients in a limited geographic area. There are very-very few mental health professionals that begin to understand the phenomenon but there are a small handful of people that do.”
“There are a couple of people with a background in psychology that are very good at counselling people and they work inside our field and the academic world as well. There are a couple of other people who specialise in counselling cult victims and they’re trained counsellors and they’re very good. But still, as a country, we’re really lacking in understand this phenomenon and are way behind the rest of Europe, unfortunately.”
When you said the phenomenon, it is estimated there are five hundred to a thousand cults [operating in Britain], what numbers would you quote?
IH: “You’re quoting the figures that I would use and I am accused of being conservative and I prefer to be that… But it’s a growing problem and it is getting worse. Hopefully, it’s not as bad as it would be if there weren’t voices like ours – that’s a hard thing to measure.”
“I think if people started to recognise that cults are here to stay and there’s a tremendous need to be a lot more discerning and just simply question!”
“People spend a lot more time checking out a new car than they do checking out a group that they may be interested in getting involved with. A new car may break down but if it’s a cult, you’ll be the one breaking down. It’s a completely different ballgame and a very serious one.”
Finally, why do you think it might be getting worse?
LW: “I’m not sure why but I think an awful lot of groups seem to be setting up on the back of these health and wellbeing groups, and yoga groups. Every single newspaper has a massive great health section full of this ‘neo new age’ sort of stuff. I’ve seen within that a growth of abusive one-on-one relationships. Not a situation where a person gets sucked into a group but where one person targets another and usually ends up taking a vast amount of money from them. They usually target people who have a vast amount of wealth.”
“I’ve interviewed three or four people who have been in that situation. I don’t know… Maybe it is the breakdown of religion and people not going to church anymore, family breakdown but more importantly, there’s nothing really to stop them. It’s unregulated – there isn’t a body that actually has any clue and that can monitor these groups.”
“We are behind the rest of Europe! Awareness is just incredibly low. I guess politically it’s not a vote winner. It affects a relatively few number of people and politicians don’t take the long-term view do they, they take the next four years…”
IH: “For me there are two issues here. One is, statistically if each person that’s recruited becomes a recruiter and recruits four or five other people and that’s a minimum, then cults are bound to grow at a tremendous rate, and they do… But the other side of it is that as cults continue they become wealthier and wealthier and they get the best lawyers in the cities and there are lots of stories we give to the media that don’t see the light of day. The journalist gets paid but it’s not published because people don’t want to get sued. So that’s another aspect.”
“There is a control and there is an influence on the media, and that’s most unfortunate.”
Is there a real lesson that you’ve learned that you would like to impart or you think society as a whole would benefit from, especially in Britain, where as Ian and Lynne say it’s very beneath the radar, with tightly controlled media that is influenced by highly paid law firms who are able to represent these new religious movements – what would your lasting comments be?
NT: “I think one of the big issues is people being afraid to trample on religious freedom. There’s a fine line between overanalysing every religious group – is it a cult, is it not, and where we are now – where cults can operate so easily. Lynne was talking about new age groups and I think it is one of the rising areas that cults will take advantage of, to be able to recruit people. And it’s not a new thing! If you look back at the Order of Solar Temple not so long ago who ended with something like seventy suicides… They recruited exactly the same way! So Luc Jouret – one of their two leaders, used to hold these conferences on alternative medicine and new age healing methods and that’s how he recruited a lot of very rich and very powerful people. I think it’s what people need to be very aware of – a group or a person who just seems overly caring, if you’re going through a difficult time or you’re feeling lonely or you just had a loss, and you meet a group or several people where there’s that instant ‘we love you, you are one of us’, and I’m not saying that everyone should be paranoid or wary because the world wouldn’t be a very nice place, but sometimes something that is too good to be true is really too good to be true.”
“I think awareness is the most important thing. That is what all of us here are trying to do and there’s a long road to go before we get to a place where people are actually aware of these dangers, are looking out for them and not falling into the trap…”
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