'I was brainwashed by a cult': How one woman escaped and rebuilt her life

At the age of 26, Alexandra Stein was drawn into a secretive political cult, which deprived her of all personal freedom, alienated her from friends and family – and even told her who to have a child with. She finally escaped aged 36 and rebuilt her life. Here she explains how it feels to be brainwashed and to have every aspect of your life controlled

The Dialy Main, UK/December 14, 2014

By Lynne Wallis

I wasn’t the kind of young woman to dream about marriage, but if I imagined a proposal, it definitely wasn’t in the form of a memo instructing me to get pregnant.

That was what happened after I was recruited into the O, the bizarre political ‘organisation’ that dominated my life throughout the 80s. I received a message in the post from my husband-to-be – a former flatmate – telling me, ‘It is my understanding that we are to begin a PR (personal relationship) with the strategic aim of having a child.’

I’ve always been a roamer. Born in South Africa to politically active parents, who moved to London in protest at the Apartheid regime, I washed up in Berkeley, San Francisco, at the age of 18, volunteering at a free clinic for the poor and living in a shared house.

As a political idealist, I was craving involvement with an organised movement so, in 1980, I was intrigued when I met a man involved in the O. Initially he spoke quite secretively about the movement. I wanted to change the world – the fact that the O was ‘underground’ made it more appealing.

I was introduced by a mailed memo (the only form of communication with the group’s leader, known as the PS, or programme secretary) and invited to Minneapolis where the O was based.

I shared a house in a bleak part of town with two other members – Bruce and Ted. Instead of walls, there were divider screens between rooms, including bedrooms, and we had no privacy.

There was none of the camaraderie or warmth I’d known with other activists, and we never met with more than five or six members at any one time. I found Bruce unpleasant, but I liked Ted, although we only ever talked about work – idle chitchat was discouraged.

Everyone had code names – mine was Clare. Almost immediately, every aspect of my life was being governed by the O’s leader and his ‘cadres’ – from when I slept, to what I ate and who I spoke to. I joined the O believing it would turn us all into effective Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries, fighting capitalism and defending poor people’s rights, but it was not at all how I’d imagined it would be. Food was very basic and smoking and drinking were disapproved of. We never had any visitors and we weren’t allowed contact with friends or family. It all seemed rather joyless.

I had an ‘assessment’ – the first of several – with a senior cadre, something everyone goes through during the six-week recruitment phase. I was ordered to tell my story, my family background, what drove me, what I worried about and feared. I was told to leave my bourgeois middle-class ways behind, stop thinking I had all the answers and focus on transforming myself. My achilles heel is that I had always feared I never stuck at anything – work, relationships, political affiliations. Unwittingly, this provided them with a very powerful tool of control.

here was a separate phone code for each of us: three rings, a pause and one ring meant it was for Ted, and so on. We believed we were being watched by security forces (many left-wing groups were being observed, both in the US and the UK) – but later I realised that secrecy was a means of controlling us. All the rules were laid down via memos from the PS, and it was understood that every instruction must be carried out to the letter. These missives were regarded with awe, and the orders within them were never questioned. The irony, as I saw it much later, was that while looking for a socialist utopia, I’d embraced a form of fascism.

My first ‘assignment’ came via a memo instructing ‘Clare’ to start work in The Working Woman & Man’s Book Store, a lefty bookshop run by the O selling Marxist and Maoist literature. It was a public place but we still weren’t meant to tell anyone we worked there. The O had grown out of food cooperatives and credible politically active groups of the time. It still ran food coops – as well as a bakery, a crèche and a print shop.

While in theory the O was intent on promoting equality, its true objective was the control and manipulation of its members by one man, the power-crazed former black rights activist Theo Smith, who later turned out to be the PS himself. I never met him but Smith was known to be charismatic and authoritarian; he drew us in, then controlled us. Any challenge was met with one of two responses: ‘work harder’ or ‘struggle with the practice’ – which I now know to be classic cult responses to challenges.

I was working in a paid job packing in a factory as well as volunteering in the O bookshop, sleeping just four to five hours a night, permanently exhausted. Keeping us in units of two or three isolated us from developing meaningful friendships, and the secrecy meant we never knew what other units were doing, so we imagined incredibly important stuff was going on elsewhere. Sex and relationships were closely managed because intimacy can be threatening to a cult’s control of its members.

On top of my two jobs, I had to cook, shop, do my laundry and write reports about my transformation into a good revolutionary. There was no time to stand back and take a reality check to see how illogical all this was. I began to feel ill under the strain – very disturbed, yet unable to think clearly. If I tried to explain to someone how I felt, they would just say, ‘Your bourgeois identity is being broken down. You have to transform yourself.’ The belief that I was striving for a fairer world kept me going.

After six weeks at HQ, I was broken. I no longer knew what I believed. I had developed a dual personality, which is like having the real you smothered underneath a tarpaulin. The O kept me in my place by reminding me what I had told them during my assessment – that I couldn’t commit to things. Whenever I expressed a doubt about the O, these admissions were used to make me feel guilty and useless. I was told that as a middle-class woman I had a superior air about me, that I had to stop being intellectual. In other words: stop questioning. My life had become a miserable, dull existence; warmth, laughter and camaraderie had been replaced by rigid rules, systems and loneliness.

In March 1982, two years after I first encountered the O, I received the memo telling me I was to start a relationship with Bruce. I was repulsed by him but fancied Ted, so I wrote back suggesting this as an alternative. It was approved, and Ted and I set up home together. The whole purpose of the relationship was to have children, but I had difficulty conceiving, so we adopted two babies, a boy and a girl. I trained as a machinist and a computer programmer, and the children were put in a nursery so I could work.

After we had been married for five years, I tried criticising the O to Ted, but he couldn’t go there. He knew that people were always snitching on others, and then ‘methods of correction’ would be handed out, such as being separated from your children. I was very unhappy at the way I was being forced to bring up my children – I was made to feel guilty if I let them enjoy playing with Ninja Turtles as only ‘structured development’ was allowed. This was one of the moments when I realised something was very wrong.

Then I noticed that the hired hands at the bakery, where I was working, were being paid less than the minimum wage. How could this be when we were supposed to be committed to proper working conditions? I stopped working there in protest, and there was a hearing with five other people who formed a sort of judicial board. Ted was forbidden from speaking to me, even at home.

It was as if a light had come on in my head. I broke the O’s secrecy rule by discussing doubts with a female member called Kris, and we began to realise the truth: this wasn’t a movement dedicated to equality – it was a façade, and we had been taken in. I gathered the strength to leave with the children, who were five and two, and took a flat in another part of town. It was incredibly hard. I had no friends and was cut off totally – my parents thought I had ‘settled down’ – so I felt abandoned.

After I left, I discovered that Smith had served time in jail for killing a man living in one of his cult houses the year before I joined. It distressed me to know that I had given up ten years of my life striving for a fairer world but had ended up serving the ego of a psychopathic killer.

Fear is the force that drives a cult, and it continues even after you leave. Every night for a year after leaving I would wake up shaking, convinced someone was going to come and shoot us. Smith sent a message saying that Ted had to keep the children, but I knew Ted didn’t want this. I threw down a challenge – if Ted kept the children I would tell the outside world everything I knew about the O. I ended up exposing them eventually, but it was an effective bargaining tool. I had a few abusive phone calls from Smith, and then nothing.

Three months after I left, I discovered, through reading and talking to other former members, that the O was a cult. It operated in a way that is common to all cult groups – by controlling information, isolating members from the outside world and by using sleep deprivation, an overly busy schedule and no privacy. The O coerced people into abandoning their own beliefs, quashing all individuality and independent thinking. Real or imagined ‘sins’ were confessed so that boundaries of personal privacy were blurred. It all fitted.

I felt so stupid. How could this have happened to me? People join cults because they think they have found something amazing, but these organisations are a means to control, often for financial or sexual gain, but sometimes simply for the sake of power alone, so that the leader or guru, many of whom have a personality disorder, has total control over his or her devotees.

I rebuilt my confidence through writing about cults, and began working on my book Inside Out, but I suffered from post-traumatic stress for years and I would have regular flashbacks to bad times. The experience had a serious impact on my ability to form relationships – I found it very hard to commit. I’m with someone now but we live separately.

I returned to the UK seven years ago for family reasons and, equipped with a PhD from the University of Minnesota, became an associate lecturer in social psychology at Birkbeck University in London. I include cults and brainwashing in my teaching, and my children – one in the US, one in the UK – support me. Fortunately they were young when we left, and I don’t think they are scarred by their experience of the O. Ted came out a year after me, with my help, and he now works in banking. He has remarried and is a conservative family man; we are all on friendly terms.

It is my view that parents need to alert their children to the dangers posed by cults, and universities need to know how cults recruit on campus. Students need to watch out for any group with a closed structure and a charismatic leader who tries to befriend them. Or any group with a single ‘truth’ at its heart. Isolation, engulfment and brainwashing will follow, and the result will be exploitation and control. I wish I’d been handed this basic information when I was a young idealist.

Sadly, almost 25 years after I left my group, young people are still ignorant about cult recruitment, and we know that cults are on the rise. Most people think, ‘Ah yes, but it couldn’t happen to me,’ and this is where they are wrong. Cults are clever, and they use sophisticated techniques to reel people in. It’s psychological rape. You are not in your normal state of mind, you are exhausted, frightened and lonely, and when you do experience a moment of clarity you have no time and no one to reflect on it with. I was the brainy one in my family and they sucked me in. It can happen to anyone.

Traits of a cult

  •     Your gut feeling tells you something is wrong. Trust it.
  •     The group/guru has the total and only answer – they will make the revolution happen, etc.
  •     Extreme and/or inappropriate friendliness or attention.
  •     Not answering questions.
  •     Strange language or jargon you can’t initially understand.
  •     A hard sell for further commitment. If you resist, you’re selfish, bourgeois, etc.
  •     Encouragement to cut ties with family or friends, unless you can recruit them.
  •    Secrecy, inappropriate confidentiality.
  •     Lack of privacy.
  •     Challenges to your fundamental identity: your strengths are criticised as your weaknesses.
  •     Once you’re in, pressure to stay.
  •     The group leader is always right and no criticism is allowed.
  •     Deception: what you thought you’d get on joining turns out to be something else.

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