What Is A Cult?

The five of us kneel, huddling close together in a tight circle, with our leader standing in the center, glaring down at us imperiously. The body he has chosen for this lifetime is small, lanky, and pale, with stringy black hair hanging in greasy strands in front of his face. His eyes, however, gleam with a brilliant fire of passion, a blazing faith that drives any doubt away; he is certainty and will personified.

“Let us all praise the Goddess of the moon,” he intones.

Next to me, Matt raises his head. “All hail Artemis,” he begins.

Our leader explodes. “Swine!” he shrieks. “You know the moon is at its last quarter!” He paces back and forth frenetically before us, his harsh trembling voice burning into our ears and our spirits. “Now you’ve gone and angered Lilith by summoning Her wrong aspect!” Stopping at Matt’s side, he delivers a torrent of vicious kicks to the young man’s flanks. Matt does not move away to safety, nor do we move to help him. We know all too well the punishment for disobedience. As Matt shrinks into a fetal position, waiting for this latest assault to stop, the rest of us breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Better him than me, each of us thinks privately. We know that after this is over, our leader’s anger will be spent, and we will be safe – until the next time.

I am not proud of this memory. I have seen – and done – terrible things, things that would shock most people. Sadly, however, I am not alone in my experiences. Today, one only has to say the words ‘Jonestown,’ ‘Scientology,’ or ‘Aum Shinrikyo’ to conjure up the most horrifying images of abuse, torture, and death. Most of us could probably name a half-dozen organizations commonly called “cults” off the top of our heads, and these are just the “Brand Names.” There are thousands of groups – if not tens of thousands, some of just a couple dozen, even some of no more than ten people – that never make it to the headlines. They come in all denominations, from Christian Bible-study groups gone wrong to pyramid selling schemes designed to entrap and drain your will as well as your finances.

Ask any expert exactly what defines a cult, and you will get a thoughtful paragraph or twelve, but never a simple answer. However, just because we can’t define a cult in simple terms doesn’t mean we can’t recognize it – and fight against it – when we encounter it, no matter what the form. Whatever the size or system, the abuse is still there, every bit as hard to escape, and every bit as deadly.

The facts are painful and terrifying:

  • Although their numbers are rapidly dwindling, there are currently three to four thousand[1] people still in Scientology’s “Sea Org,” where they are routinely denied proper healthcare and safe working conditions, as well as their federally-mandated right to receive their mail unopened,
  • There are approximately two thousand[2] or more “child brides” still in their mid-to-early teens living in the FLDS enclaves of Colorado City and Hilldale, Arizona, who have little to no choice of which middle-aged man they are given to,
  • Hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses die each year because of their leadership’s (constantly waffling) rules on blood and plasma transfusion – many of them children too young to understand the choice their parents are making for them,
  • Every year, countless citizens are driven to despair and bankruptcy in such psychologically abusive pyramid schemes such as Amway and Herbalife,
  • Suicide is epidemic as family members are torn from each other, parents estranged from their children, and billions of dollars appropriated from the bank accounts of the entrapped, filling the already swollen coffers of the leaders.

Too many times I have heard: “Oh, I would never let anyone do that to me; I could never join a group like that.”

Believe me, I once thought that, too. I even said it once or twice myself.

But can you honestly say that there has never been – or will never be again – a period of your life when you’re in a state of transition? That’s all it takes to lower the vulnerability of the strongest of us. If you are searching for answers, or inexperienced, even separated from your traditional support systems (and all of these conditions can easily describe your typical first-year college student), it will be all too easy for a group to draw you in, and to make it all but impossible to leave. Or maybe there’s just something in your life that you’re not happy with: a relationship, a pattern of your behavior, anything that might lead you to seek spiritual advice. Born-again Christians and other mystics will tell you it’s because of your “god-shaped hole,” and Scientology calls it your “ruin,” but if you have something that you’re working on, a cult will do its best to exploit it.

“Oh, but I won’t join a cult because I’m an atheist!” A cult does not have to be religious or spiritual: there are plenty of cults out there disguised as self-help movements, psychotherapy groups, business ventures, political movements, or social clubs. There are even cults that double as martial arts studios, health centers, or even companies that sell diet protein shakes.

How, then, do you figure out if a group is abusive? From my recovery onwards, I have devoured every book on the subject, from Margaret Singer’s groundbreaking “Cults Among Us,” to Robert J Lifton’s work on thought reform, to dozens, if not hundreds of individual stories of enslavement, escape, and recovery, available on countless survivor forums, newsgroups, and blogs. (A side note: early on, I discovered that the best message boards, chat rooms, and blogs are usually created the by survivors of Scientology; I myself credit this to the organizational skills L. Ron Hubbard stole and then marketed as his own creation, but I’d love to hear any ex-$cio’s point of view on this.)

There are many excellent lists of cult characteristics out there, from Steven Hassan’s BITE model to Margaret Singer’s chart of indoctrination: even Hubbard tried his hand at writing a list of ways to create a cult atmosphere (disguised as a “KGB Brainwashing Manual” he tried to sell to the CIA). No kidding. I invite you to check that and the rest of them out; you can find them among the links below. Here is my own list of symptoms of an abusive cult; remember, not all of these have to be present, or encountered in any specific order, for a group to have serious abuse happening.

1) Aggressive Recruitment: You don’t have to be especially vulnerable to be recruited into an abusive group, or in any kind of spiritual or emotional crisis, but it helps. Many – but not all – abusive groups deliberately court the confused, lost, the friendless, or even just the new in town. At the very least, you might be dissatisfied with your current situation, or just curious about a new health benefit, business opportunity, or political belief. University campuses are a prime hunting ground for these groups – where else are they more likely to find people looking for answers?

Certainly, many legitimate groups recruit new members, but few are as energetic about it as a bona-fide cult; generally speaking, you look for a normal group, and a cult looks for you. Although not always used, a good sign to watch for is “love-bombing,” where your urge to belong is fed by continual reassurances that you are needed, even loved, by the group: the leader or inner circle members will favor you with loving treatment and kind words, stressing that you are just the person they need in their organization.

2) Ultimate Authority: A cult wants you to know that they have the answers you’re looking for. If there is a leader, the members will paint that individual as more than human, if not divine. Think of the reverence shown for Kim Jong Un inside North Korea (a country which has all the earmarks of a destructive cult). At the very least, the leader is benevolent, wise, and powerful, and, of course, the ultimate authority on any subject pertinent to the group’s interests. Beware the organization whose leader makes grandiose claims to wisdom, enlightenment, or extreme intellectual or business prowess beyond the “ordinary” person, and when they claim infallibility, head for the door!

Depending upon the belief system, the leader will claim to be an Ascended Master, a Bodhisattva, an anointed preacher of the Word of Christ, a new Prophet, the reincarnation of some famous spiritual leader, or the channel to a powerful spirit. The New Messiah is a popular role for the up-and-coming cult leader to assume, as is any name attached to a central religious figure. My own cult leader claimed to be the reincarnation of several different mythological, historical, and even literary figures, including (but by no means limited to): Mephistopheles, Zeus, John Dillinger, Judas Iscariot, the “Holy Guardian Angel” of depraved author and mystic Aleister Crowley, Corwin from Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, the father of Merlin the Wizard, and even Kurt Cobain (logic? What’s that?).

For the groups founded on business or social models, a cult leader need not resort to the supernatural to fluff up his resume. Your cult leader might be a powerful martial arts expert, the most gifted financial analyst in the world, the holder of several doctorates from a dozen universities, or any combination of these or other impressive-sounding credentials. The leader’s high-powered university degree might be from a “dollars for diploma” mill, or even completely bogus. Whatever the credentials, real or imagined, they will be worded to be plausible, eloquently woven into the theology or belief system of the leader’s choice. These claims to high status will serve later to give the leader complete and unquestioned authority over you, to give his or (very rarely) her words the weight of gospel, and sometimes even to make the whim of a moment into tomorrow’s ironclad law.

3) Elitism and Xenophobia: It’s a tough world out there. Shit happens. There might be an earthquake, your fiancé might be run over by a truck, or you may simply be stuck with a job you hate and a family who doesn’t understand you. Even when life is good, the world around you is a confusing and frightening mix of violence, war, famine, hatred, natural disasters, and pro hockey. The savvy cult leader will play on this, highlighting just how evil, lost, or plain stupid the world around us has become: in many groups, the world will be about to end. Using the concept of imminent Armageddon to keep your membership in line is a time-honored tradition: the Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted no less than eight dates of Armageddon[3] since their inception. (Each time the predicted end of the world came and went without incident, the leadership of the Watchtower would generate a new prediction, the discrepancies either credited to mathematical or translation errors, or even completely denied using rationalizations that would make Orwell blink in amazement.)

There are dozens of different names for outsiders: “un-baptized,” “worldly ones,” “sinners,” “mundanes,” “raw meat,” or “wogs,” but the message is essentially the same: anyone not following your group’s rules is ignorant, or, worse, deliberately evil. Joining the group and following the leader assures you a place in an elite force, armed with the knowledge that you are part of a select few, and that your group alone holds the monopoly on the secrets of life. You’re part of a special army sent to destroy evil and bring your leader’s message of peace to all mankind, or at least that section of mankind your leader approves of. Often you’ll be told that membership in the group is your only way to enlightenment, salvation or financial independence, and that not joining would be to turn your back on your own spiritual development, personal power, or even the fate of the world itself. You have to save the world! How could you dare to leave?

4) Isolation and Confinement: One of the best ways to keep you obedient and trusting in your leader is to isolate you from any other frame of reference or support system by removing you from the general population, either by physical distance or exclusive mindsets. Humanitarian and anti-Scientology activist Tory “Magoo” Christman (whose excellent YouTube channel can be found in the links below) has aptly dubbed this feature of cults “The Scientology-Truman Show:” pointing out that the movie is an excellent example of life in any cult (and I echo her sentiments; it’s a great movie, do watch it). Essentially, you’re living within a reality created by your leader, a “bubble” of existence which keeps you away from the outside world and its influences. The “outside” media are not to be trusted; in many groups, television, newspapers, and internet access will be filtered or, more likely, banned outright. You will be told to ignore or discredit any less-than-positive reports of your group’s activities as “bigoted,” “inspired by Satan,” or “unenlightened.” Your phone calls, letters and even visits to and from your family and friends will be discouraged, if not monitored, censored or even forbidden (in my own group, my biological parents were supposed to be “constructs,” not real people, and contacting them to be considered as pointless as talking to a chair).

The reason is clear: when you’re away from the group, you have time to assimilate your experiences, and, more importantly, examine your own beliefs in relation to the doctrines you’ve been fed. The effective cult leader knows that the teachings of the group, not to mention his claims to ultimate wisdom, very rarely stand up under the scrutiny of reasoned, solitary contemplation. To combat this, your leader will often claim that it is dangerous for you to stay away too long from his energy field, aura, or healing influence; even short periods of time away from the group will be limited, regimented, or forbidden outright. Often, your leader will tell you where – and with whom – you can live. If you’re lucky, your housing might be provided to you for free, but don’t count on it. Even if the rent isn’t charged in dollars, it will cost you, dearly, in the coin of your freedom and independence.

You certainly won’t be encouraged to make friends outside the group, and you might even be told it’s a bad idea. If you are sufficiently isolated, most of your friends will be in the group anyway, if not your family; your entire social life centers around your group and it will be incredibly easy to go for days on end without seeing or talking to an outsider. The good news is that if you show you can be trusted to remain faithful to your leader, he will be more likely to let you out on missions for recruitment, fundraising, or other public relations duties. The bad news is you that will be travelling with other members, who will be ordered to keep an eye on you (just as you have most likely been ordered to watch them) and report anything “unusual” that may have happened while you were away.

In too many cases, expressing the wish to break ties with the group is a punishable offense. In Scientology, you will have to submit to a “sec checks,” a process where you pay an exorbitant fee for your counselor to interrogate you about what crimes you must have committed, because only someone who has committed criminal acts would ever wish to leave the group (don’t think they’re going to stop before they find something). In at least one extremely abusive dojo, leaving has meant a brutal death at the hands of the sen-sei’s henchmen. These are extreme examples, but if your group is a cult, you can be sure that you won’t be able to leave on anything approaching good terms.

5) Disindividuation and Assimilation:

Often, you will be encouraged to begin again and separate your old life of confusion and pain from the new life under the loving tutelage of the leader; he, of course, will seek to replace your lost affiliations by creating new ties within the organization. You might even be given a new name in order to stress the start of a totally different existence. Members often address each other as “brother” and “sister,” with the leader as “father” (the rare female cult leader is almost invariably “mother” when the group’s focus is spiritual). It is not uncommon for marriages – sometimes legal, sometimes not – to be arranged between two people chosen for each other by the leader. In my group, I was “married” to a man chosen by my leader, whom he had met less than twelve hours previously; it didn’t end well.

Another important way to isolate you is from the world in general to use “loaded language:” a set of jargon and terminology, even alternate definitions for words you “thought” you knew the meaning of already. Every organization, especially religious ones, have their own jargon, but very few legitimate ones seem to spout out the mind-numbing wall of acronyms seen in Scientology, or have the labyrinthine alternate meanings to just about every word in the English language seen in your average ultra-conservative Bible-based group. There’s a definite appeal to any cult leadership in adopting their own language: outsiders won’t know what you’re talking about, and it will increase your feelings of being apart from them and different from the rest of the world.

To further set you apart you will be encouraged to dress like the other members, if not issued an actual uniform. Any good cult watcher knows about the Sea Org’s spiffy attire, complete with navy-style trimmings, which are certainly an improvement on the orange pajamas sported by the followers of Rajneesh, but less stylish than the slick “athletic” look chosen for the unfortunates in Heaven’s Gate for their final journey. (At the risk of sounding unforgivably flippant and sick, if you do end up drinking that Kool-Aid, you might want to consider exactly what kind of outfit you would be caught dead in.)

6) Dictatorship: Now that you’re being told where to live, who to love, what to wear, eat, and think, and, most importantly, what to ignore, you didn’t think that you’d actually be able to have a say in the running of the organization? If your leaders are going to punish you for wanting to leave, can you imagine how they react when you tell them why you want to leave? You will have very little say in the pattern of your daily life, even down to the last detail. The organization’s structure is just as rigid – or, worse, just as capricious – as your leader’s imagination, and these are his rules, not yours. The cult has its own ways of doing things and the rules aren’t negotiable. To keep up the appearances of a democracy, the leader will delegate a few, carefully handpicked members to handle the day-to-day workings of the group; there even might be dozens of committees, each with impressive, powerful-sounding titles, but these subgroups carry no real autonomy, and real power over your life – and maybe even your death – never leaves the leader’s hands. Are you able to suggest policy changes, vote against the majority view, or voice your grievances – without being punished for your trouble? Keep in mind this last one is a right extended even to the inmates of our worst prisons.

7) Appropriation: Members of Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple knew that they were pooling their resources to create their utopia in the Guyanese jungle, but very few of them expected just how much they had to turn over once they got to Jonestown. The medications of a congregation with many elderly members were commandeered and locked away in the cabin adjacent to Jones’ own, ostensibly to prevent medication abuse, but really so that the reverend could use the resulting pharmacopeia for his own personal drug trips[4]. Pressure to “give for the good of the group” will run the gamut from abnormally high dues to “fees” for spiritual services rendered (Scientology is of course the standing champion here, but certainly not unique in this feature). Many beneficial organizations rely upon member donations for survival, but when your group becomes one of the biggest bills in your monthly budget, you might need to ask yourself what you’re paying for. No worthwhile religion or philosophy costs more than rent or your grocery bill. Whether browbeating you with exhortations to give up your “greedy lifestyle” or telling you that you have an “unhealthy attachment to worldly things,” your leader will do whatever he can to part you with your money and possessions. Your leader might tell you that the cash is going to any multitude of good causes, but from Rajneesh’s famous collection of Rolls Royces to David Miscavige’s million-dollar birthday parties for Tom Cruise, a cult leader and your money are rarely parted. This tactic dovetails nicely into my next point:

8) Privilege and Stratification: Apparently, it’s tough to be a cult leader. Besides being the focal point of your entire organization, you have the extra duties of holding the universe in order, being the only person God talks to, not to mention constantly battling horrible demons for the souls of your followers and the fate of the cosmos. My own leader often spoke of how “expensive” it was to our karma to bother him with our petty human dilemmas when he had to work so very hard keep the world from imploding. Your leader will often stress his great sacrifice in allowing you to benefit from the wisdom offered: he will use this reasoning to explain why he needs the best and the most comfortable quarters, food and luxuries often forbidden to you, his humble follower. In order to keep balance on the scales of the universe, he will have to relax often, and he’ll need to be fed well; he certainly shouldn’t have to follow the same petty rules as a mere mortal. In her autobiography, Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, observed how the prophet would often sup at a table laden with expensive delicacies for himself and his favorite wife, in full sight of the rest of the family, who, seated at separate tables, ate much plainer and scanter fare. This behavior, sadly, isn’t limited just to groups traditionally thought of as cults: think about the vast, opulent estate populated with an army of servants currently enjoyed by the former pope, and compare it to the living conditions of the average Catholic living in, say, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, or a dozen other countries.

If you’ve been a good boy or girl, and demonstrated your absolute trust in the leader by following his orders without question or complaint, you might garner a position of trust and even some limited leadership within the group. You might even get perks such as expensive gifts, good treatment, better food, larger living quarters, and, most precious of all, freedom (though not too much, of course). However, if your leader senses any breach of trust, whether real or imagined, he will step in and strip it all away without a moment’s notice, most likely leaving you worse off than before. If you’re bad, disobedient, or just not fitting in, you’ll get the most menial chores, the worst living conditions, and you’ll be constantly monitored for any sign of rebellion. Rank might hath privilege, but the rank-and-file have no privileges whatsoever.

9) Secrecy: Did you know that Amway is a Christian organization? No? Of course you didn’t; neither did I, until I started speaking with people who have left the group. Strangely enough, you have to be seriously committed to the group before hearing even the faintest whisper of Jesus talk, and by then you’ve most likely already committed to a life without newspapers or television and sunk several thousand dollars into the lifestyle. Many religions have mysteries, but when a group won’t admit their affiliation up front (the Moonies and the Family of Love are notorious for this), you should really ask why – and don’t accept because they’re afraid of discrimination. No matter how many death threats my city’s mosque has suffered by closed-minded idiots, they’ve never even considered disguising who they are or going by another organizational name. If our Muslim cousins don’t need to hide, why would any legitimate organization need to do so?

No group, even when located in a relatively remote location, can conduct its business without having to deal with local authorities. These outsiders, damn them, will ask inconvenient questions. This, of course, means that honesty is the worst policy: you’ll be encouraged to lie to the general public about a wide variety of subjects, such as the acquisition and use of member funds, and especially the treatment of members and the general quality of life within the group. Your leader might even ask you to open a bank account for his benefit; if you’re a bookkeeper, your skills will be used to set up dummy corporations, hedge funds, and various other piggy banks for your leader’s use. But it’s not just financial shenanigans that have to be hidden; episodes of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment that you’ve learned to accept as a day-to-day happenstance might shock those who just don’t understand why you needed to be punished, so it’s better not to tell them anything. It’s for a good cause, after all; keeping the cult’s secrets is more than justified by your lofty, even holy, status: your group – and your leader – must, after all, survive at any cost.

10. Discipline: Your leader, in order to maintain his position of ultimate power over you, must foster an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Even if you’re the most loyal of followers, your leader will keep you wondering. Who is punished, who is rewarded, and why will rarely follow logical or even predictable rules: in my cult, our leader would compare us to characters in popular TV shows, graphic novels, and movies, and then reward or (much more often) punish us for the actions of the characters he claimed were “reflections of our will.[5]” Put simply, you are assumed guilty until proven innocent, and your leader not only functions as judge and jury, but also as chief witness and prosecuting counsel. At any time, for any action, real or imagined, your leader can call you in front of the group and harangue you mercilessly in front of everyone, holding you up as an example of bad behavior, worldliness, or even an “agent of the Devil.” You’ll only have your leader’s word that you actually committed a crime; your offense can range from trying to escape to merely having “negative thoughts.” Your leader might even claim some form of telepathy, thus enabling him to accuse anyone of anything he wishes. This system assures that even the closest associates of your leader live in constant fear of punishment. One way to avoid punishment is to shunt your leader’s focus onto another member: you might even be actively encouraged, even ordered to tell the leader about other members whose actions or talk seem suspicious. Sometimes your leader might bring everyone together, forcing them to admit to fantastical, highly embroidered tales of sin, with others members shouting condemnation and then giving forgiveness in an almost orgiastic setting of  confession and redemption (this format seems to be especially popular in Bible-based cults). From the blows of “Slappy” Miscavige to the public humiliation of a dysfunctional revival meeting, there is no excuse for abuse in any form, be it physical, emotional, sexual, financial or otherwise.

My greatest hope is that soon, the Church of Scientology (now in a tortuous death-spiral despite its protests of “unparalleled expansion”) will crash and burn. Inevitably, the resultant disclosure of what’s really going on inside the Dianetic Curtain will prompt our lawmakers to take a good hard look at why we allow such abuses to take place, and hopefully put much-needed safeguards into effect so that no seeker need fear destruction at the hands of a false guru. I have a dream that someday there will be a world where young girls are not married into the harems of middle-aged men, where parents are not forced to deny their children lifesaving medical procedures, where people are not chained by their beliefs, but brought together in celebration of a faith without fetters.

However, to create such a world, we need to stop the abuse, and to stop the abuse we need to identify it. Only when we look directly at an injustice, unblinkingly and honestly, can we erase it from our midst.

As an exclamation point to all of this, I am re-posting the chart below, a chilling revelation of just what evil is protected by law here in the United States.


Apparently, if you’re a “faith healer” in Idaho, you can murder as many children as God tells you to….


Here are some helpful links; this list should by no means be considered complete. However, these links provide a good starting point, and will lead you to many other good resources as well.

The International Cultic Studies Association, the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, the Cult Education Institute, and the Cult Information Centre all keep excellent lists of groups (cultic and non-), as well as posting great articles, and listing resources for cult survivors, the family and friends of cult members, and anyone wishing to know more about the subject of thought reform. However, do NOT bother with the Cult Awareness Network, as that was sued into oblivion – and then bought by – our friends in the “church” of $cientology (it’s an interesting story, a good thumbnail sketch of which can be found in Operation Clambake, here).

The Underground Bunker and Operation Clambake are far and away the most informative and exhaustive resources on Scientology. The blogs of Ex-Scientologists Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun are also well worth a read. Also, the YouTube channels of Tory Magoo and Karen De La Carriere are informative, engaging, and should be standard listening for any cult watcher, as should the excellent podcasts of Jeffrey Augustine.

Although not being updated anymore, the Child Bride Information Page still holds hundreds of heart-rending stories from the front lines of polygamy, demonstrating what an artificial farce such “reality” shows as  “Big Love” really are.

Although I’ve already provided a link to the Freedom of Mind, Steve Hassan’s “BITE” Model of Cult Mid Control is worth its own separate link. Similarly, Margaret Singer’s Six Pre-Conditions for Thought Reform, and Robert Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform are required reading for anyone curious as to how critical thinking can be eroded in certain group situations.

And finally, as promised, here is L. Ron Hubbard’s own “brainwashing manual,” supposedly translated from a secret KGB document he somehow acquired. Anyone in the cult noticing the similarities between the processes described in the manuscript and the daily life of a Sea Org member will be sent directly to Ethics to deal with the resulting entheta.

[1] Based on personal inquiry to several leading ex-Scios and three prominent journalists.

[2] My own estimation, based on these figures from the Salt Lake Tribune. And if you still think that this is a “cultural choice,” I suggest you read some of the true stories on this site.

[3] The Rational Wiki’s list contains end-of-the world predictions from a variety of groups (well worth a good peruse, btw).

[4] From Seductive Poison, written by Jonestown survivor Deborah Layton.

[5] No, I’m not kidding. How I wish I was making it up!

This entry was posted in Cults, Philosophizing, Scientology, Spirituality and Religion, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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