One who got away: Cult recruiting flourishing quietly on college campuses

Away from home, young people find themselves swept up and isolated

San Francisco Examiner/March 4, 1990
By Carl Irving

[Jane Doe] is closing in on a degree [now working on her doctorate] at UC-Berkeley, but only after what she now views as eight years in a void, serving a false god.

Her unquestioning devotion to [G]uru [Sri Chinmoy] 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 [Doe]. "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 American 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 [Mrs. Doe], [Jane]'s mother, and president of the network's Northern 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 [called "Unbound"] in Iowa City [now closed], 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 the future.

"They follow a Pied Piper, who tells then 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 conversions. "I would guess that's only the tip of the iceberg."

[Doe] 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 …[following Guru Sri Chinmoy]. 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 colleges. 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 sent 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 cult, "we were getting worried," Reynolds says. "Students were feeling 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 pervasive 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 if 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 Froehlich, 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:

  • A freshman from Southern California was recruited by the[International] Church of Christ in his dormitory. Members refused to leave him alone after he began to have second thoughts about joining. He disappeared for a while, and his family told Reynolds he had had a nervous breakdown. "He was knocked right off the track," says Reynolds.
  • A woman student from the San Joaquin Valley became so involved in the Unification Church that Reynolds says she began to have trouble with her studies. She met stiff resistance from the church when she tried to withdraw from it, dropped out of Berkeley and returned home.
  • A 22-year-old senior psychology major was recruited by a group calling itself Bible Studies in the New and Old Testaments. She says she withdrew 2½ months later when she was pressured to avoid her mother, who opposed her membership. "They used to manipulate me, they were trying to mold me."

David Rosenhan, a Stanford law and psychology professor, says the campus activity is part of a worldwide 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 [Jane Doe] away from her UC campus in 1980, in order to follow, with great devotion, the [G]uru 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 [for an involuntary deprogramming] with the help of four hired "security" men.

"My husband was crying, but that was the way it had to be," [Mrs. Doe] recalls. "It was a total act of desperation and one should never do this." But, she says, her daughter's first words were, "What took you so long?"

[Jane Doe] now recalls that she quickly realized she had been "miserable and, if such a thing exists, brainwashed. I also realized I was not only vulnerable but had lost a lot of years."

Recognizing cult involvement

Signs for parents to look for:

  • Abrupt personality change [e.g. from introverted to extroverted, open to suspicious, loss of sense of humor or former interests such as sports, hobbies etc.]
  • Cutting of ties with family and friends [increasingly all time spent with group members]
  • Total involvement with the group, excluding all else [increasingly submerged within the group and its environment]
  • Quick involvement in proselytizing and fund-raising [this is often seemingly obsessive and all-consuming of time and effort]
  • Speech that begins to reflect the group's rigid dogma [the same words and phrases used repeatedly that match those of other group members--highly definitive thought-terminating jargon]

Signs for students to watch for:

  • Authoritarian male[/female] figure [that is the focus of the group]
  • High-pressure pitch--[they won't leave you alone--no respect for your personal boundaries]
  • Vows of a group's support and love for you before they know you [but conditional upon your acceptance of the group and its doctrine]
  • Demands that you sever ties to family, friends and religion [anyone or anything that seemingly opposes the group, its control and agenda]
  • Invitations to leave campus for a religious retreat [where there is isolation, control of the environment and information and no meaningful outside frame of reference]

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