Experts Combat Destructive Influence of Cults

The Daily Californian/April 15, 1997
By Alana Hoffman

Many sects target college students

She doled out $1,500 to support the group. She severed all ties with family members. But 11 months after joining Campus Advance - after witnessing the depletion of her bank account and seeing her grades plummet - the UC Berkeley student finally concluded that her supportive friends were actually cult members.

Two years ago, the student, who wished to remain anonymous, began a crusade to prevent other innocent students from being sucked into cults. She currently leads a campus group called Students for Cult Awareness Now, which aims to warn students about cults, and especially about Campus Advance.

Campus Advance is a branch of the International Churches of Christ (ICC), a movement that started in Boston and is regarded as a cult by both the Northern Cult Awareness Network in San Francisco and the American Family Foundation. ICC's activities have also been portrayed on a national news program.

The student's involvement in Campus Advance began her freshman year. Anxious to make friends and adapt to the college environment, she accepted an invitation to a volleyball game - triggering 11 months of psychological trauma.

"When I first joined, I thought it was just another church," she says. "The people were so kind and compassionate; I thought it couldn't possibly be a cult."

The kindness and compassion continued for the first six months she was in the cult, often referred to as the "honeymoon period." During this time, cults often demand that new members confess all their sins; these confessions may later be used to threaten a person against leaving or to make the individual feel guilty.

At the command of the UC Berkeley student's "discipler" - an older cult member who governed all aspects of her life - she broke off all contact with family members and friends.

"I told all my friends that they were going to hell because they hadn't joined the ICC," she recalls. "Needless to say, they didn't take it well."

Only when the student realized that the group's philosophy didn't coincide with the Bible's religious teachings did she severe her ties with Campus Advance.

"I realized that the choices my discipler was forcing me to make were against my conscience and my heart," she says. "How is that salvation?"

As evidenced by the recent mass suicide of members of the Heaven's Gate group, cults today are more prevalent than ever, says Janja Lalich, a Bay Area author, cult expert and former cult member.

Experts say cults are especially active on college campuses, places that recruiters may use as their "hunting grounds" when recruiting new members. Students are more susceptible than others to joining these sects, says Lalich, because they tend to be idealistic and curious and are undergoing a major life transition.

"There is a misconception that people who join cults are stupid," says Hal Reynolds, who directs a campus cult awareness program through the Office of Student Activities and Services. "Actually, they tend to be intelligent and educated; they just have a personal need or a spiritual longing that pushes them to lose a sense of rationality."

While experts disagree on an exact definition for cults, they say four criteria can be used to identify cults.

A cult is usually started by a self-proclaimed leader who demands veneration to him or her rather than to a cause or a higher power. Cults are regulated by an "ultra-authoritarian" structure with no input from members. Rather than publicly disclosing their operations, cults often operate with hidden agendas and willingly use deception to recruit new members. Finally, these sects use psychological techniques to indoctrinate members and influence them to the sects' schools of thought.

"It's not what a group believes that makes it a cult, but rather the way it operates," Reynolds says.

While many believe that these behaviors apply only to religious sects, these groups account for approximately one-eighth of all cult groups, according to Lalich.

Many cult experts have experienced firsthand the feeling of unity associated with being a part of a cult and also the emotional desolation incurred when leaving the sect.

Michael Lisman, a Bay Area social worker, is a former member of the Moonies, an alleged international cult whose thousands of members rally around leader Sun Myung Moon.

Lisman's "seduction" into the Moonies, as he called his introduction to the group, occurred when he attended a social event sponsored by the International Re-education Foundation. The group claimed to unite people and improve the world.

"I was told that they had a practice to help people find a sense of peace in themselves and in the world," Lisman says.

Only after he attended a weekend workshop with the group was Lisman introduced to its religious beliefs. He later learned that the International Re-education Foundation was a front for the Moonies or the Unification Church - as the sect is known throughout the country.

Lisman spent many years of his life traveling the country on fundraising tours, and working 15-20 hours per day, seven days a week for the group. He married within the cult and became a state leader for the movement.

In many cases, cult members become isolated from their families and friends outside of the group. Lisman's parents, however, refused to relinquish their son; after 19 years of his involvement in the group, they hired people to kidnap him and present him with information on the Moonies. After six months of research, Lisman decided not to return.

"Everyone would like to believe that they can't be brought into a cult or influenced by mind control, but we are all susceptible to manipulation to a certain degree," he says.

Lalich also spent several years in a left-wing, political cult based in the Bay Area before becoming a counselor. But her story is different than most, as cult members banded together after 10 years to overthrow their leader.

"We finally realized that everything we were doing was for the gain of the leader," says Lalich. "Our energy was being ripped off, and we were working at her whim."

Lalich, like Lisman, now counsels former cult members and families whose loved ones are part of these groups.

"We help people understand how they were manipulated while they were in the cult, so that they can move on with their lives," Lalich says. "It's like a debriefing process."

According to Lisman, breaking away from a cult is only the first step. It is also crucial that former cult members get professional counseling soon after the split, he says, to help them cope with the experience. Otherwise, lifelong psychological disorders and residual feelings of desolation may prevail.

For those who suspect that a family member or friend is involved in a cult, Lisman recommends maintaining contact with the individual while gathering as much information about the group as possible.

"Talk to the individual about what they are doing in a curious, non-critical way," he advises. "It's very important to be there for the person, because if you antagonize them, you'll just drive them away."

Some may never come to the realization that the group they are involved in is a cult, says Lisman. Others, however, spurred by emotional breakdowns, financial depletion or the love of family and friends, eventually find the courage to question the group's beliefs and to break away.

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