Edmonton organization fights back against cult movement

The Edmonton Journal/September 2, 2012

Nearly a decade ago, Carla Brown escaped the clutches of a religious cult that operated in a rural area near Fort McMurray.

When she left, she closed a strange and troubling chapter of her life that had begun years earlier with her marriage to the group's leader, a man whose followers trusted him with their lives.

"I felt like I was going into a science fiction movie," says Brown of her introduction to the group. "I was intrigued at how these people could be this little pocket in this normal culture."

Brown, a former music-video producer, had seven children with her husband before she decided to leave him and his group. Feeling trapped by her husband and her surroundings, she started sneaking away to a Fort McMurray Internet café where she researched cults and spiritual abuse, downloading information onto a floppy disk to keep with her.

"I saw what happened behind scenes, how things were manipulated and people were abused, and abuse was hidden and illegal things went on," Brown says.

Brown is now director of the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse. The organization provides support for former cult members and for families who have lost a member to a group.

The power of such groups to remove a person's ability to make informed decisions is a common trait, says the University of Alberta's Dr. Stephen Kent.

An expert in new and alternative religions, Kent has discovered cultish characteristics in self-help organizations and pseudo-medical groups.

They typically have a charismatic leader, usually someone with a personality disorder, Kent says. "The people confuse mental and personality disorders with spirituality - those groups can be quite dangerous."

There are about six cults operating in Edmonton, but the number is difficult to track because the groups tend to hide their identities.

In the past, at least one group is known to have posed as a Bible study group on the city's post-secondary campuses, blending into student movements, or having recruiters approach students at transit stations.

"These people have studied the Bible through their own lenses but have done so very intensely so they can out-talk, and out-argue, most other people who have a far weaker basis," says Kent, who has met with U of A's campus security to discuss the problem.

Kent is particularly concerned about international students who are not always immediately aware of the customs of their new home country. Some aren't able to see signs that they are being approached by recruiters for a cult.

The average age for people to join cults is between 18 and 25, when young people are at "a turning point in their life or are just curious about who this group is," Kent says.

There is a pattern of behaviour shared among groups that recruit and isolate their members, Kent says. "As potential members, groups usually treat recruits very kindly and they're showered with affection and interest."

But the more isolated, radical and extreme, the more harm and abuse occurs.

Brown says she knows some of the techniques that cults use to help isolate new members from their loved ones.

"I have a stash of 'goodbye' letters," she says. "The middle management of the cults coach these kids on how to write these letters. Once they cut off people then they almost get more privileges... (they get) connected in the inner circle."

Christine is an Edmonton mother of four who asked that her last name be withheld for the privacy of her family. Two years ago, her 19-year-old son came home preaching about a cult-like church in north Edmonton he was attending with four of his closest friends.

"That kind of shocked us that he was going to church let alone that he was involved in this group where they believe God is walking around as a 67-year-old Korean woman," says Christine.

Her son, the youngest in the non-religious family, tried to recruit other family members, and when that didn't work he started to withdraw, his mother says. In a short time he sold all his personal belongings - his guitar, golf clubs, even a sentimental gift from his parents - and likely gave the proceeds to his church group, his mother says.

"Everything he could sell he did sell - he sold his grad ring we gave to him - nothing meant anything to him anymore," Christine said.

Standing just over six feet, he dropped down to under 125 lbs., depriving himself of food until he was "disgustingly thin," and staying up all night with friends.

"The pastor would text them non-stop and was in constant contact with them," says Christine, who has since learned that sleep deprivation is one of the ways cult groups try to gain control.

Christine thinks her son got involved through a friend's girlfriend who attended the University of Alberta. He has since moved out of his parents' house and rarely makes an appearance at family gatherings.

Christine says police couldn't help her get her son away from the cult.

She and her husband now meet monthly with Brown and four other sets of parents in a support group run by the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse. Brown coaches families on understanding the spectrum of harm found in cults. She teaches techniques parents can use to speak to family members who are in cults.

Christine tries to communicate with her son, but finds it difficult.

"Every day I text him, every day (I ask) 'Do you want to meet for supper or do you want to go for lunch' - every single day and I hear nothing for a month. Now to me, it's just heart-wrenching."

When Christine does get a chance to see her son, he seems different from the laughing, high-spirited young man she used to know. He only talks about his church, and repeatedly calls his mother "spiritually draining" if she tries to bring up anything else, she says.

But she remains hopeful that he may break away. His health is worsening because of his poor nutrition, and that may prompt him to leave, she says.

"He ended up losing jobs because he just couldn't function properly," Christine says.

There have been a few times that her son hasn't gone to the church for a few months, but he slowly drifts back because of his social connections.

"Those are all of his friends in there and he's cut off contact with us. He just gets drawn back in it and that's the cycle we're at right now," Christine says.

"When this came up I was just so unprepared for it and it had never entered my mind as a mother," she says. "How many other groups are out there taking over people's minds and destroying families?"

Brown can relate to the story about Christine's son.

Like many of the people she now counsels, she went 15 years barely speaking to her mother because she was told to "submit her mind to the group way of thinking."

"We were taught we were the light in this world and if our light went out the world would go to hell in a handbasket," Brown says.

"I did fight it and I did say 'This doesn't make any sense - I have no voice, I have no personality.' "

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