What Is It About California and Cults?

HBO’s The Vow examines yet another sinister, Hollywood-adjacent, destructive organization. But are Californians really more susceptible to cults—or do cults simply want what the Golden State is selling?

Vanity Fair/September 3, 2020

By Jane Borden

When you hear the word cult, do you imagine a group of beautiful, young people dancing trancelike in the sun? Do you assume they’re aspiring actors who lost their compasses, took a wrong turn at the beach, and wound up in an orgy? If so, you’re not alone. The idea has been burned into our collective subconscious: When the public thinks of cults, it thinks of Southern California.

Some of the most famous ones in American history have called SoCal home—the Children of God, Heaven’s Gate, the Peoples Temple, the Manson Family, and, depending on who’s defining the word cult, Scientology. Even NXIVM, the latest cult to capture the public’s fascination—thanks in part to the new HBO docuseries The Vow—has a strong Hollywood connection, though the organization was based in Albany: Smallville star Allison Mack, one of the group’s highest-ranking members, was arrested in 2018 on charges including sex trafficking and forced labor, along with NXIVM leader Keith Raniere. Mack ultimately pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy; Raniere was found guilty on all charges.

It’s no wonder that Americans have long assumed Californians not only want to be in cult-like groups, but are also more likely to be duped by the bad ones. “There’s this perception that Californians are pinballing around out here,” said William Deverell, director of the Huntington–USC Institute on California and the West—that their new age, self-improvement-focused lifestyles leave them particularly susceptible to the NXIVMs of the world.

But is there actually truth to this stereotype? No, according to several experts I contacted for this story. “I have dealt with people in destructive cults for decades, and they come from every background,” said Rick Ross, founder of the nonprofit Cult Education Institute. “There is no profile of a potential cult member.” Anyone can be drawn in—and eventually manipulated—by a charismatic leader making tantalizing promises that wind up causing real harm; Ross has seen that firsthand.

Then why does the myth persist? Because there is indeed a connection between Southern California and cults—but the public has it backward. Southern Californians don’t necessarily want what cults offer. But they are specifically and aggressively targeted for recruitment because cults badly want what Southern California offers.

Historically, if you wanted to sell something new to a bunch of rich people, you went to California. By the early 20th century, the gold rush and Hollywood had made the state synonymous with cash. And while the East Coast was dominated by established European religions, California in the early days was largely “unchurched,” explained University of Oregon professor emeritus Marion Goldman—which made the area particularly appealing to founders of new religious movements and intentional communities, many of which wouldn’t fit Ross’s definition of what makes a destructive cult. But that meant California was also a perfect hunting ground for con artists starting movements that were actually centered on coercing followers into giving them money and sex.

So far, so good. But if you want to steal even more money, as all megalomaniacs do, you’ll need stronger recruitment tactics. Enter celebrities.

One of the best ways for a cult to advertise itself, said USC media and religion professor Diane Winston, is by attracting high-profile members. “Who do they want to hold up?” she explained. “People who are famous and influencers to the general public”—like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, whose support helped transform Scientology into a household name. The Vow is filled with choice behind-the-scenes peeks at NXIVM’s inner workings because Raniere specifically recruited actors, as well as filmmaker Mark Vicente—who was a member for years before disavowing the group. Vicente shot mountains of footage of the group—including multiple scenes of people turning giddy in the presence of Raniere—and gave Vow directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer access to it after deciding to participate in their project. Sarah Edmondson, an actor and ex-acolyte who also figures prominently in the doc, received extensive recruitment training and tapped into her Hollywood circles to find new members when she was still in NXIVM’s thrall. Raniere also convinced Clare and Sara Bronfman, heirs to the Seagram fortune, to give NXIVM as much as $150 million.

Recruiting from the entertainment industry—and targeting the wealthy people associated with it—is such a foolproof growth tactic that destructive cults often open branches in Los Angeles after developing elsewhere. Heaven’s Gate started in New Mexico, while Jim Jones began the Peoples Temple in Indiana; both eventually moved operations to the Golden State.

No matter where they launch, many destructive groups actually start out rather benign—in the 1950s, Jim Jones fed the poor and pushed integration—but veer increasingly pernicious as leaders grow hungrier for power and followers. The Vow doesn’t investigate whether Raniere’s intentions were originally aboveboard; allegedly, he had been leveraging power to seduce young women for decades. It seems, however, that only more recently did he start having acolytes burn his initials into women’s flesh. Who knows—if Raniere hadn’t been taken down, it’s possible NXIVM would be opening a Los Angeles Celebrity Center soon. That’s just good business.

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