Cult living sucked joy out of life

If people are being overly nice to you, perhaps they have another agenda

Edmonton Journal/June 12, 2004

Lovell Young always knew there was something wrong with the way his family lived.

The Calgary man grew up with strict rules about how to dress, where to go and with whom to talk. By the time he reached middle-school age, five of his family members had committed suicide.

Fifty-five years later, he escaped from the religious cult his family has been trapped in for four generations.

"It's been a release from bondage," Young said.

He was one of 170 people attending the American Family Foundation International Conference in Edmonton this week. The gathering at the University of Alberta Conference Centre brought together former cult members, families of members and experts to discuss how people can recover from involvement with cults.

Recovery is a long road, Young said. When he failed to comply with the cult leader's wishes, Young was physically, emotionally and sexually abused. His attempts to break away were marred by bouts of alcoholism.

"(The leaders) were as toxic as sitting in a bar. And I could have more fun sitting in a bar," he said, laughing.

Cult leaders repeatedly told the members only they would achieve salvation and outsiders would perish in the afterlife.

He said he can see through their arguments now.

"It's a waste of 55 years of my life."

Young's experience is typical of people entrapped by a cult, said Betty McCoy, vice-president of the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse, the conference's co-host.

Isolation and conformity are just two of many tactics cults use, she said. They often prey on people who are troubled.

"At some stage, and it can be when you're divorced, when you have a death in the family, you're vulnerable," she said. "Someone comes along and starts telling you about this wonderful, wonderful group ... They're so loving and they're so kind, and you just think, wow, I'll go with this. It's only after a time you discover you're expected to toe the line."

While she wouldn't name any local groups, she estimates there are between 200 and 300 cults in Alberta. The society received 700 calls this year alone from cult members wanting to escape or family members seeking help.

Cults aren't just religious groups, she said. The groups can also be political, business- or marketing-oriented, or operate under the guise of psychotherapy.

Daniel knows the lure of cult life well.

The 29-year old Edmonton man, who doesn't want to give his last name, became a skinhead when he was a lonely, angry 18-year-old.

"They were rebellious," he said.

"They directed blame for who's responsible for society being how it is. Identifying that and targeting that helped me understand how my life was how it was."

He felt empowered and felt he had a sense of purpose, he said.

The shy and soft-spoken man also got a criminal record. "I've got a bunch of assault convictions and weapons convictions."

He helped beat up people because of their race and was busy recruiting new skinheads.

"It becomes (part of) your daily life. Anyone you work with or you talk with, whoever you're around, you identify and educate them, and you take different angles, I guess, manipulation, right?"

Years later, he began to realize it just wasn't right. He moved to Edmonton and with only a Grade 8 education, he went to college. He's now a part-time student at the University of Alberta, and hopes to study criminology and conspiracy theories.

"People didn't want me around because of my anger. I was basically obsessed with Zionist conspiracy, that's what I lived for. Now I get joy out of my life."

Similarly, Young is now a waiter at a Calgary dinner theatre and is working towards his dream of studying addictions and cults at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

'Cheryl', an Edmonton woman who belonged to a cult for seven years, said people aren't stupid for falling into cults.

"People come with good intentions," said the woman, who can't reveal her real name.

She joined a locally based spiritual cult after finding comfort in the guidance of the leader and emotional connections with other members.

She's happy she escaped.

"I just hate the feeling of going to someone else for answers when the answers are within me."

McCoy said the best way to avoid being sucked in is to be alert and critical of groups you meet.

"Ask questions," she said. "Be aware that when somebody is being very friendly, very accommodating, spending a lot of time giving you all sorts of warm accolades that seem somewhat inappropriate, just know one thing: If what they're telling you and what they're doing seems too good to be true ... it always is."

The American Family Foundation conference on cults ends today.

What is a Cult?

A cult is a highly manipulative group which exploits its members and can cause psychological, financial and physical harm.

It dictates the behaviour, thoughts and emotions of its followers. Manipulation techniques transform the new recruit into a subservient member.

Cults claim a special status, for themselves or their leader, that usually sets them in opposition to society and family.

Cults conceal their real nature and goals from prospective members by adopting deceptive behaviour to attract new recruits.

Source: The Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse.

Cult Characteristics

What to Watch For:

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