Shrouded in Secrecy

Could cults be a threat to your family?

Woman and Home, April 1995

Parents who have lost children to so-called religious cults claim these twilight organisations have wrecked their lives and robbed them of their loved ones. But the groups themselves say they offer nothing more than an alternative system of belief.

Jane Akshar was on her way home from work one evening when she was approached by a "personable young man" on the London tube and invited to a Bible discussion. "I was interested, especially as the approach came from someone who seemed so completely normal." She went along to a Sunday service, and came away "feeling I had met 400 new friends and just had to find out their names."

Within weeks, this 39-year-old computer consultant, a former member of Junior Mensa, was giving ten per cent of her income to the London Church of Christ. She had ejected her lodger and was sharing her own house with girls from the church who "told me what rent they were going to pay, which rooms they were going to have and where I could sleep." She was even placed on a diet because she was perceived as being overweight and therefore "ungodly".

For the next seven years, Jane's whole life was controlled by the organisation, to the extent that she had her cat put down when church elders accused her of loving her pet more than God.

The church, set up in London in 1982, operates a religious regime. Recruits are looked after by "disciplers", sometimes as young as 19 or 20. "You are encouraged to let them into your mind and if you try and hold back or be provate about anything you are condemned for being proud. There is intense emotional pressure: you are letting God down if you question your discipler," Jane explains.

The church invades every aspect of the followers lives, choosing partners for them and devising a complex social calendar to ensure that almost every free moment is taken up with church activities. When Jane and another Church member Ayman, formed a close emotional attachment they had to receive permission from church elders to continue the relationship. "When we eventually realised how strong our feelings were for each other they put an incredible amount of pressure on Ayman to give me up. They said he could choose any other woman in the group to go out with. The extent of control is frightening - when we got married we had to report back on our honeymoon even telling them how many times we had made love. A discipler acts as the intermediary in any squabbles between partners so you aren't even allowed to take responsibility for your own arguments."

Jane and Ayman finally broke free from the London Church of Christ after Jane had suffered a miscarriage due, she believes, to the crazy lifestyle imposed on them by the church. Today she and her husband offer help and advice to other cult members who are questioning their involvement with these extreme organisations.

In search of spirituality

Remarkable as it sounds, Jane's story is not untypical. The London Church of Christ is one of many so-called cults - groups which apparently exert mind control over their members - now operating in the UK, breaking up families, taking wives from husbands, estranging children from parents.

Estimates vary dramatically, but it's believed by both the Cult Information Centre and Catalyst, a counselling organisation specialising in helping ex-cult members and their families, that there are around a thousand cults actively recruiting in the UK today. The CIC receives over 3000 phone calls a year from families and friends of people involved in these twilight organisations and hears every week about new groups springing up.

Those now involved in cults in the UK may number "as many as a million, depending on your definition of what a cult is" says Graham Baldwin of Catalyst.

Ian Haworth of the CIC, puts it even more strongly. "Per capita, he have as big a cult problem in the UK as the in the USA."

Traditionally, the Americans have embraced a wide variety of beliefs. Some remain extreme and of interest to the fanatical few and others, like the Church of Scientology have achieved mainstream respectability with a queue of celebrity names such as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and both Priscilla Presley and Lisa Marie Presley-Jackson, happy to be publicly associated with it.

In the UK, Sceintology has an estimated 50,000 followers, while the Unification Church (or Moonies) which suffered a rush a bad publicity in the 1980s may currently have as few as 2000. A recent introductory meeting of New Age group the Gnostics - held at Chelsea Town Hall recently - drew a packed audience of 500.

It's easy to dismiss the cult phenomenon as a fad, symptomatic of a society which is increasingly questioning its spiritual direction. That is partly because the world "cult" is associated either with the weirdly melodramatic - such as the tragic siege in 1993 at Waco, Texas, in which over 80 followers and Branch Davidian leader David Koresh died in a hideous inferno and, last yeare, the mysterious deaths of 50 members of the Order of the Solar Temple in Canada and Switzerland - or the plain silly - like the mass wedding of 40,000 Moonies at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul in 1992. Reports of such incidents sensationalise and, by so doing, inadvertently trivialise what is, in fact, an insidious and growing problem. It's seen as something that "happens over there" and couldn't possibly happen here. But it could and it does.

Danger signs

But just how do you identify a cult? The CIC, set up in the late 1980s to counter the spread of such organisations says difficulties arise because there are so many different groups. They include movements based loosely on Christianity, such as The Family of Love (formerly the Children of God), the London Church of Christ, Scientology, occultism, neo-paganism, Satanism; and Eastern inspired movements such as Rajneeshism. The latter hit the headlines last year when two former devotees, now leading respectable lives in Britain, were extradited to the USA to face charges of conspiracy to kill the State Prosecutor of Oregon who, in 1985 when the offence is alleged to have taken place, was conducting a case against cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Rajneesh died in 1990 but not before his teachings of "finding enlightenment and contemplative release from self through love and laughter" had earned him a personal fortune of several million, (including a fleet of Rolls-Royces) and a worldwide following.

It is perhaps no accident that cults are often founded by a self-appointed, messianic and unaccountable leader such as Rajneesh. Groups such as the Branch Davidians and The Order of the Solar Temple were known to indoctrinate members using a variety of coercive psychological techniques including sleep deprivation, food control, confession, peer pressure, removal of privacy, isolation, controlled approval and rigid rules.

"She was closed off - zombified"

Dennis Eborall - father of a cult member

"Our daughter went to Birmingham University in 1993 and came home talking about the church she had joined. A month later, she phoned up to say she was moving out of her flat because she couldn't be a Christian unless she lived with other Christians.

"We found out as much as we could about the International Church of Christ and were devastated when we heard it was considered one of teh most dangerous religious cults in this country. We set up a meeting between Graham Baldwin of Catalyst and our daughter. He said she was the worst case he had ever seen. She was totally closed off - zombified.

"I do as much as I can to expose the work of the International Church of Christ. I might not get my daughter back, but it could stop other vulnerable youngsters being drawn in. I've even walked around Birmingham with a sandwich board warning against them.

"All the members are middle class, idealistic young people with good earning potential. They are indoctrinated to give some of their income to the church.

"Our daughter still calls us and comes home about every two months, but we don't talk about the cult now because it causes terrible arguments. She's changed drastically. She's lost interest in her degree which worries me.

"I have to believe that one day she'll break free, but I realise that the real problems might only surface then. Ex-members of cults are usually so indoctrinated that they can't make decisions for themselves. Outside, there's a vacuum in their lives. I just hope the love of her family can fill it when the time comes.."

Preying on the vulnerable?

Some organisations recruit among the particularly impressionable and insecure. They frequently target the very young, recruiting at colleges and universities, often appealing to the idealism of well-educated, open-minded students fresh from the security of a family environment. The Birmingham Church of Christ, which denies being a cult, stands by its recruitment policy. The Church's training manual, Shining Like Stars, says that first-year students are the geese that lay golden eggs, individuals who, once recruited will go out and spread the message among their peers.

Graham Baldwin of Catalyst says that "anyone in a transitional time of their life - leaving home, breaking up a long-term relationship, going through a divorce or bereavement, moving to a new areaor even losing a job - is at risk". They are easy prey to someone who comes along offering supposedly unconditional love and the chance of a new beginning."

Older high earners who are disillusioned with their careers, may also fall victim, particularly those who have, perhaps, sacrificed an active social life in the pursuit of their careers but, having enjoyed professional success, find there is still an emotional void in their lives. For these individuals a structured social routine and the chance of spiritual fulfilment can be particularly appealing. Before long, though, not only have their lives been overtaken but their bank accounts, too, as the group lays claim to their loyalties and assets.

The rules of seduction

But how do you tell if a loved one is under the influence of a religious cult? Usually they will lead an outwardly normal life and continue to hold down a regular job. Socially, though, they are likely to reject or avoid friends who are not members of the group and become secretive towards loved ones - they are only allowed to talk freely with fellow group members. Many, if not all, members are actively encouraged to cut off from existing relationships: one man, who joined a New Age cult, made a single three-minute phone call to end his 15-year marriage. Some groups even use food control, specifying meal times and content, to exert influence.

Religious cults have been consistently and vehemently criticised for their methods of keeping followers loyal. Claims of mind control techniques to suppress individual will and promote compliance and collective thinking are common. The effects of these is often a complete change in the recruit's personality. "The first thing that families notice," says Ian Haworth, "is that Sally has changed or Christopher isn't Christopher anymore." Time and time again, people who have been involved in cults, who have had friends or families involved or who have helped cult members to leave, describe zombie-like behaviour coupled with an impenetrable "glazed look". The recruit's individuality is suppressed, his or her personality squeezed into an extreme form of corporate identity. "People feel," says one ex-cult member, "as if they have been spiritually raped."

The commitment of cult members in the lower echelons is undoubtedly genuine enough. Cults are said to operate through a pyramidal system of control; but those at the top often make no secret of the fact that belief is a lucrative business.

Some leaders are openly interested in making money - L Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology said "if you really want to make a fortune, found a religion" - (he did). But the attraction for others is even more basic - power. Frequently under-achievers in their pre-cult days, senior cult members often attain a status withoin their groups that they could only have dreamed of in the "outside" world. Witness David Koresh. Though he harboured dreams of being a famous rock musician, Koresh was a drifter and a social outcast, but his life changed when he discovered religion and dubbed himself the new Messiah. The adulation he had never received in the outside world was suddenly his, with the ability to hold sway over a loyal group of followers willing to die for him - the ultimate authority trip. In order to keep his power, information from the outside was strictly vetted, and any attempts by families to expose wrong doings treated as "spiritual pornography".

Simply misunderstood?

But Neville Lee, UK administrator for the London Church of Christ, claims that so-called cults are doing nothing more than filling a genuine void left by the failings of conventional religions. "We hold the word of God in far greater esteem than many other churches would appear to by their actions. We don't tolerate anything the Bible doesn't tolerate like homosexuality or immorality. Discipling is not a hierarchical relationship. It's a relationship that works both ways, but generally an older Christian (older in faith, if not always in years) should be walking closer to God and should be the one giving the most help, encouragement and instruction. I believe if you preach true biblical Christianity, it does create controversy - because it's so direct. A lot of churches have abandoned such teaching. That's why we get surrounded by controversy and they don't."

Families who have been estranged from their nearest and dearest would, no doubt, dispute that the true teachings of the bible endorse rejecting parental love and family life. For them the hardest part may not be losing a son or daughter to a cult - though that is heartbreaking enough - but receiving a relative stranger back into their homes and trying piece by piece to rebuild the relationship.

"A lot of people come to me in serious distress," says Graham Baldwin. "They can't live with the rigours of the group, but at the same time they have been indoctrinated to believe that they need the group more than anything else. They are going through hell and blame themselves rather than the group for their failure. To their families they can seem very distant. Rebuilding relationships is a long, slow, painstaking process, fraught with problems. But it's possible with love, patience and understanding."

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