Montreal cult conference an emotional tinderbox as diverse group of attendees can't hide rifts

The Toronto Star/July 7, 2012

Montreal -- When Anuttama Dasa began attending the cult conference, he was definitely not welcome.

"We would come and sit at the table and some people would get up and move," said Dasa, communications director for ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), a Hare Krishna group with 500 temples worldwide.

"There was some hostility," said the native of Washington, D.C., who was wearing a baby blue sweater vest over traditional Indian garb.

The event became "kind of an experiment in culture bridging — and humility," he said.

Years later, the annual conference held by the International Cultic Studies Association continues to be an emotional tinderbox for many participants, a result of its diverse group of attendees — academics, cult members, ex-cult members and "thought reform" counsellors.

Steven Gelberg, a former member of the Krishna movement presenting an essay titled "On Leaving ISKCON," said it was bizarre seeing Dasa, a former colleague, milling around.

"There is something I feel is psychologically unhealthy about an authoritarian group," he said of ISKCON, "but there is nothing black and white about this."

Then there is the rift between those seen as militantly anti-cult and "cult apologists."

Eileen Barker, professor emeritus of sociology at the London School of Economics, has been criticized for her reluctance to use the "c word" (cult).

"As an academic, my job is to try to describe, explain and understand, not to say good or bad, true or false," said Barker. "Other people do if they are more personally involved."

One such person is Steve Hassan, author of "Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs," and former member of the Unification Church, a Korean-based organization. Its members are often called Moonies.

The two panellists got into an argument about brainwashing. It became heated. "I don't want to print what I said because I'm ashamed," Barker said.

Matthew Trodden, a graduate student at the University of Alberta studying how cults use music as a control mechanism, said the academic controversies don't end there.

Another contentious point is the legitimacy of ex-cult members as sources. Some say they aren't credible, said Trodden, "that they're trauma stories, not the basis for scholarly evidence."

Memories of cult life were never far away over the course of the three-day conference. In the basement of the Chinatown hotel, where the conference was held in Montreal, is the Phoenix Room, where ex-cult members were displaying art, including photographs, pencil crayon drawings and poems.

"Religion lost its grip on me. A guru has no mystery. Some say I'm lost, I say I'm free. I'm a messiah refugee," went the lyrics to one song. Also on display is a wall hanging made by a woman whose mother left her family to run a UFO cult. A yellow moon dominates the starry night sky, across the bottom three children cry "Mama come back."

"I've gotten used to expecting that not everyone is going to get along," said one ex-cult member, a 29-year-old raised in a Christian commune in the Pacific Northwest, now studying psychology in New York City.

"I've gone to similar trauma conferences like this," she said, "different people show up, and sometimes it's not lovey-dovey."

Still, participants believe it is exactly this cocktail of characters that makes the conference worthwhile.

As Gelberg, the former hare krishna member puts it: "If they were all hard core anti-cult crusaders, I wouldn't be here."

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