This is the second in a series of articles I’m writing on the nature of cults, and is a direct response to every person I’ve heard say: “Oh, if they’re in [name of abusive cult], they deserve what they’re getting. I would never be so stupid.”
Seven reasons you’ll never become involved in a cult.
1)You have no interests whatsoever. Cults don’t need religion, or even spirituality, to hook you. A toxic group situation can exist at your local Martial Arts School, AA chapter, book club, therapy group, or even the health food store around the corner. Do you like going to a shooting range? Do you buy your vitamin powder from a co-worker who sells it as a side job? Do you like working out at a gym? Do you go to a Bible study group? All of the foregoing have been used at one time or another as the public structure for a cult. Sometimes the charitable or political organization you think you’re joining is a front group, such as the Family Care Foundation, which is a recruiting tool for the Children of God, or the Women’s Federation for World Peace, run by the Moonies.
Would you join a group called the Human Rights Commission? Be careful: it might sound like the Human Rights Campaign, of “yellow equal sign” fame, but there’s a world of difference. If you join the Human Rights Commission, it might take you over a year of involvement and a couple thousand dollars to find out that it’s actually part of Scientology, the same honest folks who brought us Narconon, Criminon, and Applied Scholastics, the organization which has recently gained as a devotee Louis Farrakhan, and by extension, the Nation of Islam. Sometimes community groups, political movements, or even isolated chapters of larger organizations will grow to become a cult, when the right mixture of personality, greed, and interpersonal dysfunction reach a certain balance; many cults start off as legitimate organizations and only gain the cultic trappings later on. No matter how the group became a cult, the abusive elements are almost never apparent until after you’ve made a serious investment in time and money.
2) You don’t care about the world around you. People don’t join cults because they’re don’t know any better, or want to be abused. They’re joining because they want to make the world a better place, even save it from its own folly, or, at the very least, make a difference in their community. Did you notice something about the list of front groups in the last section? Let’s take another look: Family Care Foundation, Women’s Federation for World Peace, and Human Rights Commission – I’m all for caring for families, world peace, and human rights; most of us are. If you hadn’t seen the exposés of the last decade, would you think that ‘Narconon’ and ‘Criminon’ were attached to the legitimate group Al-Anon, or to Scientology? What bookworm wouldn’t like the idea of a group called Applied Scholastics? Then there’s the stated goals of these groups: to help women out from poverty, to give criminals a second chance, to get people off drugs, to teach kids how to read and enjoy it – these are all laudable pursuits. That FLDS lad or Jehovah’s Witness on your doorstep actually believes he is keeping you from eternal damnation. Some of the most passionate, dedicated, and focused people I have ever met are former members of Scientology’s Sea Org: after all, they cared so much about the fate of all life-kind and wished to better themselves and the universe so much, they signed a billion-year contract to serve humanity. Pretty extreme, yes, but to any altruistic idealist, it’s just another way of saying you’re here to help and are in it for the long haul. A cult will take advantage of all that is good, charitable, and honorable in you, so if you have a speck of human decency, you should be careful.
3) You have no curiosity about the meaning of life, or any interest in something “bigger” than yourself. Even if you weren’t raised in an organized religious tradition, chances are that at one point or another, you’ve pondered at least one of humanity’s perennial questions about existence: is the physical universe is the full extent of reality? Might there be some form of higher consciousness directing it all? Just what is the true nature of our own sentience? Even the “traditional” religions are here a form of simply taking someone else’s story to answer these questions; much of the story’s meaning is up to the interpretation of the teller. The wise practitioner of a non-abusive spiritual group will use scripture as a set of uplifting parables to help the congregation and the wider community; a cult leader will use the same scripture as a series of arbitrary rules used to keep a group of people in submissive terror. Once again, belief in a higher power is not necessary to be pulled in; there are dozens of philosophical and political organizations which, once you take a closer look, contain all the ingredients of a cult, complete with rigidly hierarchical structure, dogmatic insistence to conformity, emotionally abusive practices, and extreme isolation from the wider community.
4) You have never experienced the death of a loved one, had your heart broken, or gone through any period of doubt, uncertainty, hardship, or distress. We’re all vulnerable sometimes. If we’re lucky, we have support systems in place to handle our stresses. But what if your problem is that your support systems have been removed, either by losing your spouse to sudden death, or some other immediate, “game-changing” tragedy? Life is an unpredictable mixture of random events, and a cult will be more than happy to control those events for you, or at least explain them for you so that they make sense. Granted, their interpretation is going to be designed to bring you closer in, but it will give you something to hang onto. It’s much nicer to envision our dead Aunt Gladys enjoying the paradise promised to “good” Jehovah’s Witnesses, as opposed to simply rotting in the earth; the wounds inflicted by a painful breakup can feel much better if someone’s telling you that your ex was actually a demon sent to keep you away from “the truth.” Although these ideas seem ridiculous when contemplated by the rational adult, few of us are rational when still reeling from a profound emotional loss.
5) You have never been new in town, or lived somewhere far from home. Most of us will move at least once during our adulthood; moving away from one’s family (in some cases, as far away from one’s hometown as possible) is a normal and healthy part of becoming an adult in our culture. When you move from your home base, you’re going to need to find new services and affiliations in order to become rooted in your new location. Even though that health club or support group claims to be affiliated with an organization you already know and trust, it might be a good idea to check the reputation of this particular chapter, even ask your new neighbors if they would attend their local branch of this organization, or if they know anyone who does use that branch’s services. And remember, the internet is terrific for getting all sides of the story – just be sure to back up and decide for yourself, and listen to your gut!
6) You’ve never felt alone, or wanted to belong. We are gregarious creatures; written deep into our biology is the imperative to stick together, to care for each other, even when not directly related by blood. From the playgrounds of elementary school to the cliques of senior citizens in a retirement village, we bunch together in groups. The need to belong has been well-documented by biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists alike. Think of the well-rounded person with a busy life; your typical working woman might belong to a church, a parents’ organization, a professional association, and a sports or exercise group, as well as at least a few interlocking networks of friends and relatives. A healthy person will belong to at least a couple different groups with no relation to each other; a cult will want you only with them, but they won’t tell you that until much later.
7) You’ve never been looking for a job, or wanted to make more money. Remember that college-age kid on your doorstep selling magazine subscriptions? You know: he was being driven around with a van-full of other kids, all hoping to win a trip to Europe if they got the most sales? That kid thought he was getting a summer job, and most likely no longer has the energy left to figure out that he’s in a cult. Not every youth selling magazines door-to-door is in that situation, but ask that bright-eyed boy the last time he saw his family. You might be surprised by the answer. Pyramid schemes are particularly deceitful in just how much money you’re going to actually lay out, and how little you’re going to get in return; according to their recruitment canting, you’ll be rolling in dollars with just a little money down and practically no work. There is at least one cult disguised as a company that sells air purifiers, and will put ads in with all the other employment notices. I actually went to an interview at one of these companies and was given the “hard sell” for over an hour before I managed to make my escape, literally pushing the “sales manager” out of the way to get out of the room. I was young at the time and didn’t think to call the police, but I’m not sure it would have done much good, anyway, being that it would be this hippie chick’s word against an office full of over-suave suits. Years later, I was reading an article on cults, and, Holy Toledo, there they were, right on the list, and still going strong, even with a dozen lawsuits against them for fraud and various unfair labor practices. And yet, there they are, and they’re not alone.
The bottom line is that it’s time to stop blaming the victims for being ensnared – cults are experts at drawing people in: intelligent people, caring people, people who want to change the world, and people who believe strongly about their convictions. I don’t want to give you the impression that there’s a cult lurking around every corner, waiting to snatch you up. Most likely, you will go your whole life without being ensnared by one, and I hope that’s true for each and every one of you. But my point is that every single one of us could fall prey, every single one of us is vulnerable from time to time, and every single one of us should know how these groups operate. You might not get into a cult, but someone you love might.