The frightening lure of the cult

Cosmopolitan/December 1994
By Paula Dranov

"There's nothing freaky at first. You can't know what's in store for you," whispers thirty-year-old Beth. Still reeling from her experience, she is trying to come to grips with two years in a religious cult that shattered her confidence and left her feeling bitter and betrayed.

Slim, dark-haired, and attractive, Beth had just moved to North Carolina when she fell under the influence of the cult. "I didn't know a soul. To make matters worse, my mother had just been treated for cancer. I was feeling kind of scared and lost," Beth confesses. She sought both spiritual solace and an antidote to loneliness in what she thought was a legitimate church.

"It was fun at first," she remembers. "There were parties and dances. They kept you very busy. And I was so impressed by the pastor's knowledge of the scriptures. I thought I was doing the right thing--and having a good time too."

Her affiliation soon became all-consuming. The church demanded more and more of her time: Required activities and services took up most evenings and the entire weekend. Then her paycheck was targeted: She agreed to turn over 10 percent of her earnings to the church. After the pastor's wife criticized a low-backed dress as inappropriate for single women, Beth banished it from her wardrobe. Short skirts, revealing necklines, and body-hugging styles were also off-limits. So was socializing with outsiders. "That wasn't hard," Beth sighs, "I rarely had time to meet anyone else." When she did start dating a member of the congregation, the pastor tried to discourage him from seeing her. And when church leaders told her it was "God's will," she quit her job and took a lower-paying one they found for her.

At no point did Beth suspect the church was trying to control her behavior and limit her exposure to "real-world" influences. She was incredulous when she learned the truth from an "exit counselor" hired by her boyfriend's parents to wean their son away from the congregation. "He spent three days telling us about cults and explaining how our church had exploited and manipulated us. When he asked where all the money went, we had no answer. It was very intense. The turning point for me came when he showed a videotape about Mother Teresa. I couldn't deny that she was a Christian, but my church taught just the opposite--that all outsiders would go to hell because they weren't following the true path to God."

Looking back, Beth shudders at how easily she was converted. "I wasn't surprised at what happened to the Branch Davidians at Waco," she says. "When you're in one of those groups, you're not thinking for yourself."

Every ten years or so, news of cult activity dominates the news--and it's almost always grisly. The recent collective suicide/murders of members of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Canada, and the inferno in Waco, Texas, that destroyed David Koresh and his fellow Branch Davidians, are the latest entries in the tragic history of religious fringe groups. Both these events recall the mass suicide of more than nine hundred blindly devoted members of the People's Temple orchestrated by the Rev. Jim Jones, in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, or the ritual slayings of actress Sharon Tate and four companions by the murderous Charles Manson and his followers in 1969.

Former cult members enthusiastically endorse the view that cult leaders are deceptive, exploitive masters of mind control who can weave pernicious spells capable of holding followers in thrall for decades. Many leaders, like Solar Temple's Luc Jouret, are handsome, seductive, alluring--though their paranoia and delusion could be clinically diagnosed as pathological. Ex-cultists who have escaped their grip offer terrifying testimonies that support the popular perception of cult members as robotic space cadets--even though the "mind-control" hypothesis is far from proved.

In fact, many experts maintain that most of these groups are harmless, if specious, new religions that provide temporary havens for rebellious, impressionable, or vulnerable men and women. Ex-members may find it more comforting to believe in brainwashing, they suggest, than to acknowledge their own naivete or poor judgment.

The organizations themselves vehemently reject the notion that they are cults--and all that the word implies. They prefer to call themselves legitimate churches, New Age spiritual centers, even political movements. Estimates of their numbers range from seven hundred to as many as five thousand. Some groups have only a handful of members. Others, like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church (the "Moonies"), are worldwide enterprises with tens of thousands of devotees.

However they're characterized, a foray into the cult netherworld can exact a huge emotional toll. The surrender of personal autonomy during even a brief enchantment can cause profound self-doubt. A longer one can derail (if not destroy) a member's life. The damage is even greater if exiting members were abused. Some women describe being forced into explotive sexual relationships by magnetic leaders who portrayed intercourse as a sacrament and their participation as an honor.

How much do we have to fear from these groups? And how do otherwise intelligent and seemingly sensible women get trapped in such madness? Here's COSMO's report.

"I had just broken up with my boyfriend and, at twenty-three, had had a dramatic conversion to Christ, which was probably the result of smoking some hash," says Sarah. She described her experience to a friend who insisted on introducing her to a Christian "shepherding" group in the Midwest. "All of a sudden, I was surrounded by the nicest people I had ever met who seemed to offer unconditional love."

She moved in with a family of church members and was assigned to care for their children and clean their house. Later, she was permitted to work but only in menial, low-paying jobs approved by church leaders. She saw very little of her own family and says she was warned not to contact old friends because "they would influence me away from the path to God. One weekend, I went to my cousin's wedding and didn't get the cleaning done. When I got back, I was excoriated for being uncommitted to the community. My life was no longer supposed to be important to me. You regress in a cult. You're reduced to a childlike state, having to ask permission for everything."

The whole time, Sarah remembers, "my actions were carefully scrutinized. If you were caught doing something that was frowned upon--like flirting--you would be publicly corrected and humiliated. I began to believe that sexual attraction was sinful." She spent fifteen years in the cult. A talented singer, she sacrificed vital time she might have spent building a musical career.

"No one plans to join a cult," says Lorna Goldberg, a New Jersey psychoanalyst who helps former members get their bearings when they return to the real world. Goldberg and other activists insist that any of us could wind up on the inside: "Cults target people in transition--college students away from home for the first time, people who have moved to new cities for jobs, those who have just been divorced or widowed." The vast majority of members are merely looking for a sense of community during a difficult time in their lives, she says.

Other experts say most cult members are emotionally vulnerable. In his study of a group of cult members, New York City psychiatrist Marc Galanter found that almost all were suffering from "significant emotional distress."

Another expert, J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, in Santa Barbara, California, notes that the average cult member has been in three or four other groups, a sign of what he calls the "seeker syndrome," a spiritual quest among young people free to experiment. These "seekers" generally move on as soon as they become bored or disenchanted. Melton suggests cults serve as "holding tanks" for young people rebelling against overprotective parents.

While many members do lose interest and drop out within months, Lorna Goldberg reports seeing "more and more women emerging after years in cults. They've got no real skills and no education. They're very fearful, and it is hard for them to form relationships and trust others."

Corey Slavin, thirty, figures that she had a narrow escape from a Montana-based cult she characterizes as "more dangerous than the Branch Davidians." Her involvement began in 1989, shortly after her grandmother died. "That really hit me hard," says Corey. Although she had a good job in Los Angeles, "I felt I was in over my head. My self-esteem was very low." The only person who seemed to understand was a sympathetic coworker. "I admired her tremendously--she seemed so together. We shared a number of interests--astrology, karma, reincarnation--and we talked a lot about surviving a nuclear war. She influenced me in all sorts of ways, questioning why I read certain books, saw certain movies, and listened to rock. I now realize that what I thought was friendship was a very intense indoctrination. I became convinced she was the only one who understood me."

Corey's friend never disclosed that she was a member of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a notorious survivalist cult headed by Elizabeth Clare Prophet ("Guru Ma") that had been building massive bomb shelters in the Montana wilderness. But she did persuade Corey to take sixty-five thousand from an inheritance to guarantee a space in one of the shelters. Not long after that, Corey quit her job and moved with her friend to Montana.

"We lived with her parents in a double-wide mobile home. Every day, we worked on the bomb shelter--painting the walls, laying the roof, moving in furniture and food. It was hard work and exhausting because we weren't allowed to sleep more than five hours a night--Mrs. Prophet believes there's something wrong with people who need more rest. She also requires a macrobiotic diet that isn't very healthy. And everyone had to spend five hours a day 'decreeing,' which is a fast-paced chanting that I now know is a form of self-hypnosis. There were no newspapers, no television, no books or movies except those approved by Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

"One night, we got a telephone call to be in the shelter by midnight. A lot of the people arrived carrying weapons. Luckily, it was only a drill. If not, I would still be underground."

All along, Corey had been paying for room and board from her savings. After eight months, she began to run out of money. She couldn't find a job in the area, so she went back to Los Angeles to make some money, intending to return to Montana later.

"I arrived on my parents' doorstep unannounced. To my surprise, they were very supportive. For so long, I had been told that they didn't love me, yet now it seemed they did," Corey recalls. They suggested she talk to some former cult members about her experiences, and she reluctantly agreed. "When I realized I had been under mind control, I severed my ties to the cult."

Activists in the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) and the American Family Foundation, the two most strident cult awareness organizations, contend that deception is a hallmark of cult recruitment and that at the outset, newcomers have no inkling how rigidly their lives will be controlled.

Mind control, they say, begins with keeping recruits so busy and so isolated they have no time to question what they're doing or talk to others who might instill doubts. Rigid rules and rituals help reinforce the autonomy of the cult. Yet experts disagree on whether mind control without the use of force is even possible. "No one who's observed these groups closely has concluded brainwashing is the reason people are there," insists David Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Another powerful factor is the charisma, magnetism, and seductive talents of the cult leaders. "They are con artists par excellence," insists Martine, thirty-three, one of four women who are suing an upstate New York Agni Yoga group and its guru for fraud, invasion of privacy, and the infliction of severe emotional distress. The women maintain that they were enticed into sexual relationships with the guru, onetime Broadway actor John Battista, while in trancelike states induced during private yoga sessions.

Martine was only seventeen when her boyfriend's family introduced her to the cult. "I was depressed, and they thought the guru might help me," she recalls. "He gave me chiropractic adjustments, fondled my breasts, and within weeks had sex with me in ritual fashion in the shrine room. It was presented as a sign of surrender and commitment to the group. He convinced me that he couldn't do his spiritual work without me, and that if I denied him, I would be damaging the whole group." So profound was Battista's influence that, Martine confesses, "I didn't think I could live without the group or this man."

"Sexual abuse of women in cults is a pretty common story," says Lorna Goldberg. "Some groups demand celibacy, but either way cult leaders manipulate women sexually." The Children of God, a group that flourished in the 1970s and is now making a comeback as "The Family," used to send women members on "flirty fishing" or "happy hooking" expeditions to recruit men. These tactics were abandoned once the threat of AIDS became clear, but "The Family," now based in Anaheim, California, continues to encourage extramarital sex. The Church Universal and Triumphant goes to the opposite extreme, forbidding premarital sex and even restricting the lovemaking of married followers (the limit is twice a week for a maximum of thirty minutes each time). "These sexual rules are just another example of how cults control minds by regulating behavior," maintains Goldberg.

"When you're in those groups, you have no concept of the leader abusing his authority," adds Sue(*), a nurse who spent eighteen years in a Christian cult in Connecticut. Sue was only eighteen when she attended a Bible-study class taught by Brother Julius Schacknow. "I thought he was the most generous, caring, compassionate person I had ever seen. I kept going back thinking that the group was legitimate," says Sue. Within months, she was convinced "that I had to do certain things for God. I dropped out of school and moved in with other girls in the group--living with outsiders was not approved of." Sue eventually married a man in the group, had children, and returned to school for nurse's training. But for years, she didn't question what she now views as "a tremendous amount of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. The leader slept with many women and now has seven wives. They all have rings, and they're not allowed to marry anyone else."

Over time, Sue says, Brother Julius's behavior became increasingly bizarre and abusive. "He called me a whore for no reason and blamed his own obesity on the overweight people in the group," she says. "One day, three families were called to the front of the meeting hall to be examples of how God deals with disobedient children and how parents should handle deals with disobedient children and how parents should handle their children. They had to take their pants down and were spanked by the leaders. One woman was eight months pregnant."i

Although Sue left "when I saw the abuse for what it was," she confesses that making the break was difficult. "You are taught that if you leave you are throwing God overboard and that sickness, calamity, accidents, and death will follow."

Getting out is easier for short-term members. Most drift away within a year or two. "Turnover is huge," notes Dean Kelley, a counselor on religious liberty to the National Council of Churches. "The Unification Church loses half of its members each year or so. The idea that members of these groups are 'captives' who have to be rescued is belied by this fact." In today's legal climate, "rescuing" isn't what it was back in the 1970s when deprogrammers like California's tough-talking Ted Patrick snatched cult members off the street, held them against their will, and bombarded them around the clock with anticult information until they agreed not to go back. Holding someone against her will in this manner may be a violation of civil rights and a threat to religious freedom. Failed attempts at deprogramming have led to kidnapping charges and a number of successful lawsuits against parents and deprogrammers.

Rick Ross, one of the few deprogrammers still in business, rarely resorts to the "involuntary" methods. "The only justification for involuntary deprogramming today is when a cult is about to ship a member overseas out of the family's reach," says Ross. Instead, he now relies on gentler techniques similar to those of exit counselors who intervene only after parents or other relatives have prevailed upon the cult member to participate. Most exit-counselors are former cult members, who try to draw on mutual experiences to develop rapport with their subjects. "Exit counseling focuses on sharing information rather than changing behavior," says counselor and former cultist Carol Giambalvo.

Cults remain such a mystery that no one knows how many former members have been deprogrammed or counseled upon exiting, how often the tactics work, or even how many disenchanted members are sneaking out the back door as recruits are being ushered in through the front.

Waco and Jonestown showed that we need to know much more than we do about cults and the warped motives of their leaders. While experts argue about what makes a cult or whether or not mind control keeps members in thrall, former members struggle to put their lives back together. But, says Sarah, it isn't easy: "Being in a cult is not something you walk away from and forget."

*Note: In the interest of privacy, some names have been changed.

Copyright © 1994 Hearst Corporation.

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