Experts define cults as organizations that intentionally strip their members of power and independent thought to benefit an elite few. While that may not sound like an attractive arrangement, people continue to join cults, and the "outside world" continues to wonder why.
Novel's protagonist joins, struggles to escape cult
Author Eli Brown exposes the dark side of a powerful cult in his first novel. The Great Days follows the experiences of a young man named August Russ.
"He is in his 20s," Brown explains. "He dropped out of college to join what he felt was the true spiritual movement of his age. He has kind of lifelong depression. He has witnessed difficult things in his life. He was in a car accident with his father and was trapped. He had to watch his father die before his eyes. So like many people these days, he was looking for something to make sense of the trauma he's seen, something to give him a sense of peace.
"He finds what they call 'The Movement.' He becomes a student of the prophet, Papa, and ends up moving to their compound in the desert, where he studies daily. He works hard with people in the desert and eats very simple meals and grows crops. They do their meditation and prayers."
After six years of being a faithful follower, Russ is faced with a difficult choice.
"He discovers that there is corruption in the compound and in the structure of the organization itself," Brown says. "He is victimized himself, and he witnesses sexual abuse and physical abuse. When members of the cult begin to deviate from the path that was chosen for them, they are disciplined in a method they call 'redirection.' This discipline gets more and more harsh until it borders on torture. When he sees someone he loves tortured, he's realizing that the organization has gone sour and he flees."
People in search of community lured into harmful groups
Brown says he has always been interested in the ways people are manipulated into making certain decisions. To write his novel, he says he researched dozens of cults in the United States.
"The word 'cult' is only used from outside," he says. "People never say that they are joining a cult. They don't join cults. They join churches. They join militias, schools and clinics. They join meditation centers. It's only later when they want out, when they have escaped, that they look back and use this disparaging word.
"But people end up joining these organizations because they want the same thing you and I want. They want community. They want to feel that they belong. They want leadership. And whenever people feel those things, there will be an organization out there to take advantage of them, unfortunately."
Indoctrination, exploitation define destructive cults
According to Rick Ross, founder of a nonprofit organization that studies controversial groups and movements, there are three criteria for labeling a cult as "destructive."
"One: an absolute, authoritarian leader that is the defining element of the group. That is, that the group is personality driven by this living leader," he says. "Two: There is a process of indoctrination or education that largely robs people of their ability to independently and critically think for themselves.
"Then finally, if the group is considered destructive, it's exploiting the members. This may be sexual exploitation, financial exploitation, free labor, or it can become even more destructive when some groups engage in stockpiling weapons, violence. This varies by degree, depending upon the group."
One of the most destructive cults in the history of the United States, Ross says, was the so-called People's Temple, led by Jim Jones.
"In 1978 - about 30 years ago in November - last month would have been the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown [Guyana] mass murder-suicide which took the lives of over 900 Americans in an isolated cult compound in South America in the country of Guyana," he says. "It was there that Jim Jones took his most loyal followers, isolated them in this very remote area.
"And after ordering the execution of the U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan, who came there to investigate the group, Jones decided that everyone in the compound would die. Hundreds of children were given cyanide. Their family members also ingested cyanide. Some were shot, and very few escaped. It was the largest mass suicide-murder recorded for a cult in American history."
People may be growing more susceptible to cults' influence
Ross says today more people than ever are susceptible to the lure of such groups.
"I've been following cult groups for 26 years, and I can't recall any time that I've seen more [cult] activity than I do now," he says. "There is not a day that goes by that I don't find out about a new group that I haven't heard of that may be quite small that is out there flying below the radar, so to speak. So the proliferation of groups that can be seen as cults has increased dramatically."
"Typically," he says, "people that join cults are at a particularly vulnerable time in their life. They are depressed. They may feel isolated, lonely, that their career is off track.
"Also, I think in our society today, in the industrialized societies, people feel overwhelmed by technology, by so many choices, and what cults seem to offer is simplicity. One size fits all. We have all the answers. This can oftentimes be very appealing."
The newest types of cults, Ross says, are terrorist groups.
"In my view, al-Qaida would fit the profile of a destructive cult, and Osama bin Laden would be the defining element, the personality that drives that group," he says. "There has been a proliferation of old and new cults in the former Soviet Union, China. Of course, there was the horrible gas attack in the Tokyo subway system by the group called Aum Shinrikyo. Then there have been many groups throughout Europe, the U.K., Switzerland and France."
Ross says that just as in Brown's novel, cult members can be saved only when they realize the truth about the group they've joined and escape it before harming themselves or others. He adds that raising public awareness about cults is essential in order to keep people from joining them - and to make it harder for such groups to recruit new followers.