Robyn Kliger is closing in on a degree at UC-Berkeley, but only after what she now views as eight years in a void, serving a false god.
Her unquestioning devotion to a guru is gone. But 18 months after her breakaway, she still feels a lingering stigma when she tries to explain where she was and what she did during the 1980s. "People don't realize how susceptible we all are," says the 30-year old Kliger. "Those smiling faces lead you to buy it when you're naive and accepting."
While dramatic tales of mass conversions to ardent religious sects have faded, zealous recruiting by religious groups still flourishes on campuses. "It used to be a bit more obvious, but there's been no decline in activity," says UC-Berkeley's Richard Ofshe, a sociologist who studies the cult phenomenon. "It's just more diffuse than before."
According to the Cult Awareness Network, a nonprofit organization, 3 million to 5 million Americans have been or now are involved in as many as 2,500 "destructive" cults. The network defines a destructive cult as "a closed system or group whose followers have been recruited deceptively and retained through use of manipulative techniques of thought reform or mind control." The group doesn't judge doctrine or belief. "If someone wants freely to worship a rock, I don't care," says Eunice Kliger, Robyn's mother, and president of the Network's California chapter. She says her office in Mountain View gets 15 to 20 calls a day about coercive cult activities.
Ofshe and other scholars who study such groups say cult patterns have changed, from a handful of large, better-known groups to a swarm of smaller ones. Their memberships range from half a dozen to several hundred, with many dissolving and reappearing with new titles. But some of the larger groups, such as the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishnas are still around. Psychologists and others who study cults say the converts include bright, personable students, ranging from devout members of organized religions to atheists.
Kevin Crawley, a psychologist who maintains a rehabilitation center in Iowa City, says cult recruiters avoid prospects with bad social skills because they're less successful in recruiting others and in collecting donations. Many converts tend to be freshmen, suddenly cut off from home, or seniors, anxious and insecure about their future. "They follow a Pied Piper, who tells them they shouldn't be found with the children of Satan," says Robert Wagener, chaplain at UC-San Diego. He says that in recent years he has counseled more than 100 students and their families about disruptive conversion. "I would guess that's the only tip of the iceberg."
Kliger was a 19-year-old freshman enrolled at UC-San Diego and freshly graduated from a high school in Mountain View, when she was lured into joining a guru. A stable family background and enrollment at one of the state's premier campuses failed to prevent her conversion.
Family ties often get severed when students go to college. There's a taboo on parents continuing to pass along advice, which UC-Berkeley anthropologist Laura Nader deplores. "Parents don't know what's going on at college campuses. Students don't tell them about the pressures. It means the experience of the older can't be passed to the younger. No one now says "Watch out for this or beware of that," says Nader, who teaches a packed class on why people become vulnerable to ideological control.
Nader criticizes campus administrators for helping to sever ties between parent and child: "When I send my kids to Smith I received a letter saying, 'Stay out of their lives, let them stand on their own two feet.' I've heard the same speech at Berkeley. "It's no surprise that nice kids from nice families are picked up. The most altruistic kids are the most vulnerable to cults."
Last fall, Hal Reynolds, UC-Berkeley's student affairs officer, helped start annual briefing sessions on cult activities for the 6,000 dormitory residents. Although no figures are available on how many students join cults, "we were getting worried," Reynolds says. "Students were felling harassed, and we found some major personality changes and break-offs of relationships." Reynolds and other campus officials single out the International Church of Christ, whose members actively recruit students, sometimes in campus dormitories, as being one of the most persuasive on campus.
"No way are we a cult," says John Lusk, campus minister for the Church of Christ. "When I think of a cult I think of mind control, brainwashing." He denies that recruits are told to identify parents with Satan if they oppose the International Church of Christ. But he concedes that a biblical reference, "'Out of my sight, Satan.' could apply of someone tries to hold someone back.... Our goal is to make disciples. We're out to help people in a very passionate way."
Another active group frequently criticized by campus officials is the Unification Church. Tom Freohlich, campus minister, objects that "'cult' is a derogatory term used to disqualify us as a legitimate religious movement." He accuses "mental health professionals" of stirring up hostility about religious movements such as his.
But Reynolds cites several UC-Berkeley examples, whom he declined to identify.
David Rosenhan, a Stanford law and psychology professor, says the campus activity is part of a world-wide growth of interest in religion. At both San Jose State and Stanford, Rosenhan sees "religion back in favor, people believing in God, taking part in church activities, believing in miracles and so on - things you'd be surprised to see at a secular university."
A flood of belief took then-19-year-old Robyn Kliger away from her UC campus in 1980, in order to follow, with great devotion, the guru Sri Chinmoy. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, they're going to do something about this planet.'" Her parents found her in Toronto in 1988 and kidnapped her with the help of four hired "security" men.
"My husband was crying, but that was the way it had to be,"
Eunice Kliger recalls. "It was a total act of desperation and
once should never have come to this." But, she says, her
daughter's first words were, "What took you so long?"
Robyn Kliger now recalls that she quickly realized she had been
"miserable, and if such a thing exists, brainwashed. I also
realize I was not only vulnerable but had lost a lot of years."