People who know of me—rather than knowing me personally—know two things about me: I have a name that on first glance looks difficult to pronounce, and, for the past 20 years, I’ve been studying cults. Let me explain both.
As the daughter of Serbian immigrants—there’s the first explanation—I wasn’t supposed to go to college. My “old-country” father thought girls were put on this earth to get married and have healthy Serbian babies, preferably boy babies. But I had different dreams and was fortunate enough to grow up in a time when college was affordable and scholarships were plentiful. I went off to school and completed a B.A. with Honors at the University of Wisconsin, followed by a Fulbright fellowship at the Université d’Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. Afterward, I decided not to pursue graduate studies and went to live and work in New York City, then spent four years or so living on a Spanish island, and eventually settled in San Francisco. It was the late ’60s-early ’70s and I was a free spirit, with lifelong aspirations of being a writer.
Why do I tell you all this? Because then I joined a cult!
If, back in 1974, anyone had ever told me that smart, independent, wise-cracking, hard-headed me would one day be under someone’s thumb, I would have surely laughed and said, “No, not me!” But yes, me—and I give this background in part to shatter the enduring myth that only the weak-willed and stupid could ever be in a cult.
For 10-plus years I lived in an extremely controlled and restrictive environment, a true believer in the idea that I had found my destiny and was working toward positive ends. I, with my comrades, but only because of our leader, was going to change the world—when in fact about the only thing that got changed was me. And not only was I brainwashed—a word I use intentionally, and which I’ll come back to later—but I was one of the main brainwashers in my group!
When asked if I regret my cult experience, and if I had to do it over again, would I, I have consistently replied that yes, I do regret it and no, I wouldn’t do it again. Sure, I met some good people and I learned some things; I can even say I learned a lot—with the caveat that I would rather have learned those things another way.
But it’s done. I did join a cult. I did spend more than 10 years constrained, confined, and often conflicted. That background is part of who I am—and so the only sane thing to do as far as I could tell was to turn a bad thing into a good thing.
Once out of the cult, after much inner turmoil, self-doubt, anxiety, and deliberation, I enrolled in graduate school and obtained a Ph.D. Today I make whatever contribution I can to bring to people in our society a better understanding of those controversial groups that some of us some of the time identify as cults. I also hope I can help former cult members better understand their own experiences and how they might come to some personal resolution with all that.
I’d like to review some of the relevant events in the 30 years since the deaths in Guyana, to remember and honor some of the notable people in our field, and to suggest what we might look to in the future. Several interlocking themes run through my ideas here.
Who better to start with than my dear old friend and colleague, the late Margaret Singer, who would say, “Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a cult.”
And when I use the word cult, I’m not talking about religion or belief systems I “don’t like.” Some of our detractors like to make this all about unjust religious persecution or mainstream traditionalists picking on minority religions. Rather, I’m talking about imbalanced power relationships and ultra-authoritarian and controlling social systems.
I would add that we’d do well not only to study cults, but also to speak out about the consequences of membership in such a group and the controversial and sometimes harmful behaviors of the group as a whole.
I do not deny that positive experiences occur in a cult context, but what is of interest for me is the interactional dynamic found in cults that brings moral human beings to occasionally engage in insidious or demeaning behaviors, or sometimes just the plain incomprehensible. Over the years, we’ve witnessed countless violent eruptions—either inward or outward—related to one cult or another.
On November 18, 1978, more than 900 followers of the Reverend Jim Jones died at his command and at the hands of their comrades in the remote jungle of British Guyana, a small nation on the northern coast of South America.
These true believers at Jonestown—all of them U.S. citizens—were living and working in that isolated community that they built from scratch—poorly fed, overworked, yet believing they were creating a utopian society forged out of Jones’s prophesies and fantasies.
How much coercion was involved? How much duplicity, manipulation, intimidation, threat?
We do know that once there, they couldn’t leave without the blessing of the leadership because each person’s passport was taken from him or her.
We do know that Jones had his people engage in suicide drills, called White Nights—these were loyalty tests.
Jones was not the first cult leader to ask, “Will you die for me?” But he was certainly one of the few to bring that to fruition on such a massive scale.
We do know that families and couples were separated from each other, made to live in separate quarters, and that children were not raised by their parents.
We do know that dissidents were often sedated (heavily drugged against their will) and confined to an “extensive care unit.”
We do know that children, as well as male and female adults, were physically and/or sexually abused.
We do know that Jones had a highly functioning leadership body and medical entourage who kept him going and were instrumental in administering the poison on that last day, the ones who carried out Jones’s final call for what he labeled “Revolutionary Suicide.”
There was no exit for anyone who doubted or challenged the directive. The residents of the Jonestown commune were doomed. As they watched the children being forcefully injected first with the lethal mixture of cyanide and fruit drink, the adults could “choose” afterward to poison themselves. Should one even have had the wherewithal to resist, he or she was threatened at gunpoint by a security squad made up of fellow parishioners. This larger-than-life incident is a hideous illustration of what I refer to as “bounded choice.”
Horrific grisly pictures flooded the airwaves. I remember seeing them on TV while I was in a cult myself. One hard-core true believer—me—seeing the bloated, decomposing corpses of hundreds of other true believers piled one atop another. It was shocking.
Most of these people were from San Francisco, where I was living at the time. The Peoples Temple church building was in one of the very districts where I had walked hundreds of times, organizing and recruiting, selling my cult’s newspaper, getting petitions signed, and even doing fundraising among the poor folk who lived in that neighborhood. Some of those same African American ladies who held quilting bees to create and donate beautiful pieces of work for our so-called political efforts may well have gone to Guyana and died in that jungle.
While the images of the dead were endlessly visible on TV, and in newspapers and magazines, my cult’s newspaper ran a lengthy editorial in which our leader extolled Jones, his followers, and their socialist mission and vision. We understood why they did what they did, my leader wrote. We too lived in the belly of the beast and knew the desire to flee to a better land. Of course, that editorial was a superficial, knee-jerk sympathetic analysis—one cult leader defending another. And not for the first time. Over the years we’ve seen some strange bedfellows: various far-flung groups with opposing ideologies and goals coming together to join forces—in PR campaigns, legal battles, and so on.
So, what have we learned?
Do some cults induce their members to commit suicide?
Yes, but not often. Nonetheless, as much as we know that not every cult will go the way of Jonestown, we also know that one or two will; in fact, one or two or more have since then.
Should we consider these acts of induced suicide as murder?
Yes, I think so.
If you have any doubts as to the control mechanisms at play, listen to this excerpt from a letter written to Jones by one of his inner-circle nurses. She is proposing how the end will take place:
Dad… The very people who resist Revolutionary Suicide because they want to save their asses would make excellent captives for the enemy… Though the strongest might kill themselves before being taken, the weakest—no matter what they might say in public meetings—would not kill themselves and would be the first to talk.
We prepare the people by reading over the p.a. system the words of strong, assertive revolutionaries of the past who took this choice… We will meet in the pavilion surrounded with highly trusted security with guns. Names will be called off randomly. People will be escorted to a place of dying by a strong personality… who is loving, supported [sic] but non sympathetic. They are accompanied by two strong security men with guns. (I don’t trust people to arrange their own death… but [it] can be arranged by outside pressure and no alternatives left open.) At the place of dying they are shot in the head and if Larry does not believe they are definitely dead, their throat is slit with a scalpel. I would be willing to help here if it is necessary. The bodies would be thrown in a ditch. It might be advisable to blindfold the people before going to the death place in that the blood and body remains on the ground might increase the agitation.
So can the unbridled narcissism of a cult leader lead to acts of violence—inward or outward?
Yes. Remember, not just Jones and his followers died—including 314 innocent children who did not make that choice—but also a U.S. Congressman and four members of the press were killed and others seriously wounded as they tried to leave.
Each of the collective suicides/mass murders I’m about to mention is incredibly complex and warrants full discussion. I cite them briefly here as some of the other incidents we can learn from.
1993: In Texas 80 members of the Branch Davidians, followers of David Koresh, including 22 children, die in a blazing inferno at the Waco compound. We might ask: Could Koresh have let his people go? 
1994 – 1997: A total of 74 people, members of the Order of the Solar Temple in Canada, Switzerland, and France, died. Again this included infants and children, in brutal and ritual deaths. How much was compliance? How much coerced?
1997: In Rancho Santa Fe, California, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed “collective suicide.” Two more followers of Marshall Applewhite followed suit within the next six months—and possibly more we’ve never learned about.
2000: In Uganda, more than 400 members of The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments were brutally murdered and buried in secret mass graves; another 300+ burned to death in the locked church building.
These examples are tragic, yes; no doubt about it. But in my mind, what is most important about the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and what is so important about other cults, is what they tell us about the systems of influence and control that are instituted to retain members and ensure their loyalty in words and deeds.
When we hear the term “ideological extremism,” we may most immediately think of acts of violence toward outsiders, such as we are seeing in many parts of the world today. However, what we must not lose sight of is that ideological extremism and the violence that may ensue is not just about orchestrated collective suicides or martyrs blowing up airplanes or crowded buses. Rather, at its core, it’s about the social structure that gets set up around that ideology, about the promise of “salvation” and the leader’s recipe for transformation that will take you there, about the institution of systems of influence and control within that self-sealing social structure to ensure obedience and conformity—and about the power relations and the power imbalance between the charismatic leader(s) and the followers.
Ultimately, whether or not one believes that cult members are brainwashed, it’s about at least some of the members being taken to the social-psychological and emotional state of “bounded choice.” This is when normal, intelligent, educated people give up years of their lives—and sometimes their very own lives—or take the lives of others because of the deep internalization of the group’s ideology and purported goals. Time and again, we see the unquestioning adulation of an authority figure, combined with personal sacrifice and disempowerment on the part of the follower. I submit that such a situation requires that complex mix of elements just described to lead to acts of violence. These acts would not be possible, would not come to fruition without the social-psychological manipulation that goes on, unseen and unrecognized by most people on the outside.
But even more crucial, I believe, is understanding and recognizing that ideological extremism is manifested most frequently not in suicide missions but rather in the daily manipulation, oppression, subjugation, and exploitation of and violence toward cult members and their families within the cult, including the children who are born and raised in that environment. If we take a broader view of ideological extremism and its consequences, we see other forms of violent outcomes, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; exploitation; murder; and mayhem. And not just among religious or quasi-religious groups, but among groups with a range of belief systems.
Let me illustrate:
The Manson Family in 1969: in southern California, at least eight killed, and four Mansonites jailed, plus Charles Manson himself. Meanwhile, Mansonite Leslie Van Houten, 58, has spent almost twice as many years in jail as she was alive at the time of her sentencing. She has completely renounced Manson, has been a model prisoner, has completed a Master’s degree, and so on—yet she will never be forgiven and never paroled.
Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974: the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst by this political cult, whose other activities included police shootouts, bank robberies, attempted bombing, murder, and loss of life of an innocent civilian as well as several SLA members themselves.
Here’s a different kind of outcome:
One of the most known and visible groups, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON): Better known as the Hare Krishnas, ISKCON came to the U.S. in 1965. Then in 2000, a class-action lawsuit was filed for alleged sexual abuse of children raised in ISKCON boarding schools. Of interest is the fact that Hare Krishna is one of the few controversial groups to issue an apology and offer compensation—mind you, with strings attached—a response that some feel is inadequate.
Children of God in 1968 and into the 1970s: David Moses Berg’s group was formed in the heyday of cult activity in America, and then moved worldwide. By 1974, this group (now known as The Family) was infamous for its controversial sex practices, which first involved sexual “sharing” with group members, then with strangers (the practice known as “flirty fishing”), and then expanded to include children, including one’s own children!
The cult led by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 1984: Cult members put salmonella bacteria in the nearby town’s salad bars, hoping to sway the local election in the cult’s favor. The cult’s hope was that the afflicted townspeople wouldn’t make it to the voting booths that day. More than 700 people were sickened. This was the first act of biological “warfare”—probably better described as a biological crime—in the U.S.
The Minnesota Patriots Council, an anti-government militia group, in 1992: Members managed to make some ricin, a deadly poison derived from castor beans, but they never figured out what to do with it.
Aum Shinrikyo, in 1995: Group members released sarin, a type of nerve gas, in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and causing more than 5,000 to fall ill. This was chemical “warfare”—and perhaps more rightly called warfare because the Aum cult intended to bring about the destruction of humanity in its quest for Armageddon.
Interestingly, a recent book, Bracing for Armageddon?, by UCLA immunology professor William Clark, cites these last three examples, those orchestrated by cultic groups, as attempts at large-scale bioterror attacks.
But should we be worried? Dr. Clark doesn’t think so. According to him, the combined expertise needed—in microbiology, bioengineering, meteorology, and other scientific areas—to be successful in creating a biological weapon is highly unlikely to occur, not among terrorist groups, not among nations. And so, we may assume, not among cults.
Aum, for example, with all of its high-level, scientifically trained members, spent millions of dollars and almost a decade trying to develop biological weapons and was not successful. Dr. Clark believes we have much, much more to worry about from an avian flu or some other natural outbreak.
Nonetheless, today we are all concerned about terrorism and national security. We read every day of terrorist activities— the deaths, injuries, destruction. We see plenty of the aftermath on TV or the Internet.
Over the years, we have seen articles in the worldwide press about families remarking on how their loved one was seduced by a radical imam, a fellow student, someone in the mosque, a coworker, or a neighbor into becoming a revolutionary martyr. Words like coercion, brainwashing, targeted recruitment, and persuasion tend to surface in these reports.
Sadly, a recent CNN article reported on the prevalence of females being used for suicide bombing missions:
Intelligence gathered from detainees indicates that al Qaeda in Iraq is looking for women with three main characteristics: those who are illiterate, are deeply religious, or have financial struggles because most likely they’ve lost the male head of the household…. If the woman’s psychological state is bad, they try to lure her with the illusions that she will be going to heaven… All of them come from the families of terrorists, and they are being recruited and pressured.
I have no doubt that a number of us have much to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the recruitment and indoctrination of young men and women into terrorist organizations. They are not all becoming suicide bombers; we know that. For those who are selected for these martyrdom missions, the indoctrination need not be lengthy because there are many other geopolitical, historical, theological, and personal factors involved that may make it a relatively swift process. But the point is this: There is an indoctrination process—and that’s something that those of us who study cults know about. The vast majority of people are not born to kill, much less in that way. The suicide bombers are not psychopaths; they are victims.
It has also become clear to me in my review of the terrorism literature that so many—I’d even venture to say, the vast majority—of the primary authors have a minimal understanding, at best, and a gross misunderstanding, at worst, of the influence processes that we are so aware of and attuned to—and that are certainly at play here. One of the more highly regarded terrorism experts recently repeated what he wrote in an earlier book, that young Muslim youth are not susceptible to brainwashing, and therefore that is not an explanation for why they get involved in terrorist organizations and activity. If Marc Sageman understood what brainwashing was, he couldn’t possibly make such a close-minded statement.
Ironically, Sageman goes on to describe the four-step process by which the youth get radicalized—a process that, for him, somewhat magically goes from personal experience, to ideology, to a social network where they chat about things, to action. Not a single word about the change process an individual must go through to proceed from talk to action, especially when it involves violent, extremist action. No mention of the key elements of influence (possibly even, dare I say, coercion?) critical to such a process.
While terrorism is an important issue, we must also bear in mind that a culture of fear has been generated—at least in the United States—that may make terrorist activity appear to be a bigger threat than it is. A recently released study by researchers at Simon Fraser University indicates that if we set aside the war in Iraq, acts of terrorism and resultant casualties have gone way down in the past five years—by more than 40 percent since 2001. In addition, there’s been a 54 percent decline between 1985 and 2004 in the number of groups in the Middle East and North Africa using violence. One cause for this, according to the study, is the tremendous drop in support for Islamist terror organizations in the Muslim world. Much historical evidence reveals that once they lose public support, terrorist campaigns tend to be abandoned or defeated.
We saw that very phenomenon here in the U.S. in the 1970s, when the Weather Underground, a group of radical left-wing extremists, split off from the more moderate antiwar group, Students for a Democratic Society. The Weathermen blew up some buildings—and themselves—becoming very quickly isolated and irrelevant. So did the radical group Earth First!, when it advocated tree-spiking and other potentially violent acts to stop logging. Many lost interest and switched their support to more moderate environmental groups. The same dampening effect took place when extremists spurred on by the Army of God and several other hate groups incited the murder of abortion doctors. At least three doctors and four clinic staff were killed. Clinics were bombed and vandalized; staff and volunteers were stalked and harassed. Ultimately, the outcome was marginalization of that brand of ideological extremism and isolation of its perpetrators.
So while we certainly want to keep our sights on terrorist groups that use cult techniques to recruit and convert loyal followers into deployable agents, we must not forget what I consider to be a top priority—all those cults in our midst.
* * *
I’ve mentioned political groups and terrorist organizations in the same sentence that I’ve used the word cult. Let me be clear about what I mean when I use the “c” word. Moreover, I’d like to address the ongoing controversy surrounding it—a debate that, unfortunately, still plagues us and sometimes distracts us and diverts us from our greater goals.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, the authors argue that terrorists like to be called jihadists because it associates them with a term that has positive connotations, just as some cults surely would like to be called a “new religious movement” (NRM) because it puts them in a positive light (except of course a cult like the one I was in, which was political: “religious” is hardly an appropriate identifier for such a group, which is exactly part of the problem with the NRM term). In the case of terrorists, once they’re called jihadists, it puts them smack dab in the middle of a religious framework, turning the discussion toward theology and away from their terrorizing and intimidation of the public and the murder of innocents. Jihad grants honor; it deflects from the unlawful violence and disorder. The authors of the op-ed piece end with this: “The label may seem passé, but terrorism is an internationally recognized word for an internationally recognized crime. If we want to win the war on words, we would do well to choose the ones we use with greater care.”
As far as NRMs go, I am sometimes struck by the lack of complex thinking among some scholars. For one, they seem to think that if you identify a group as a cult, then you are also saying that it isn’t a religion, or a “new” religion, as though one necessarily precludes the other. They pat themselves on the back and declare “the cult wars” are over. Not so fast, I say.
Given what’s happening around the world today, their stance on the “c” word and their incessant incantation that brainwashing doesn’t exist places them on the wrong side of history.
And now a debate among them seems to be about what signifies “new.” How old does something have to be before it’s no longer new? I think that misses the point. What is of interest are the features that signify that something is a cult as we understand that term—whether it be an NRM, and old RM, a club, a political group, a karate school, a commune, a family, a psychotherapy group, a UFO group, and so on. In that regard, we must look at the patterns of structure, social relations, power relations, and behavior that would allow us to characterize something as a cult.
Equally important, as touched on earlier, by not having a commonly agreed-upon neutral—or cross-discipline—identifier, we are left with no language with which to talk about those groups that are not theologically based, like my old group and so many others. Just as the term terrorism is internationally recognized, I submit that the term cult has a solid foundation: in the social sciences—that is, in sociology, anthropology, criminology, political science, social psychology, and psychology; in the humanities—that is, in religious studies, history, and American studies; as well as in business and organization theory. Never mind that some sympathetic academics and cult spokespersons would have us believe—or more importantly, would have the media, the legal profession, and the general public believe—that there is no such thing as a cult and no such thing as brainwashing.
In a kind of misguided political correctness, much of the media may have backed down, opting for sect now most of the time. And some courts may have been fooled by the aggressive misleading tactics of a few so-called experts, although some courts have seen through that and have allowed testimony regarding the undue influence of cultic control. And I can tell you that the general public ain’t so dumb either. People understand these terms and have for decades.
Now I don’t mean to imply that this is so simple, or that there aren’t some misunderstandings or instances of jumping the gun or mislabeling that may go on. Realistically, that’s the case with anything controversial.
Yes, cult is a contested concept. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we should throw out the term. It has a good foundation; it’s been recognized repeatedly; and it serves a purpose.
Do we need to do a better job of explaining it? Sometimes, yes.
Do we need to speak out when it’s used improperly or too hastily? Yes, of course.
Does the term cult carry a negative connotation? Yes, I suppose it does for some people in some instances.
Do the cults bear some, if not all, responsibility for that? Yes, I believe they do.
Do cults get desperate and sometimes act out under the threat of outside pressure or the perception that they are being “persecuted”? Yes, some of them do. But that doesn’t mean we should shut up and go away, that we should discontinue our study of them, or cease holding them accountable to decent human behavior and the laws of the land. In fact, we have seen that outside pressure has sometimes led a cult to change or “soften” its practices—for example, the polygamous FLDS is now claiming to no longer sanction underage marriages. Public scrutiny sometimes pays off, and I say that with the clarification that I am not advocating unwarranted government intervention or the passage of laws that would restrict our freedoms. But freedom also comes with the obligation to act responsibly.
Do we need to improve and deepen our own understanding of the phenomenon in all its manifestations? Yes, of course. This is why our ongoing research is so vital. Why we must strive to publish across disciplines. We must get our point of view out there in serious, substantive, grounded articles and books.
We must continue to fight—strategically and smartly—against the academic blacklisting that Ben Zablocki wrote about more than 10 years ago. And not just the blacklisting of any discussion of brainwashing, as he was writing about in that particular article, but also we must fight against and expose the difficulty of getting anything published that presents a critical perspective of cults in general or of a specific group—no matter how well researched and substantiated the work may be.
And—extremely important—we still have to work on getting people to better understand the complexities of cult involvement and commitment so they don’t blame the victim.
As with any area of study, we have to call our subject of interest something or we can’t study it, can’t talk about it. Frankly, I believe that we create more confusion and trouble for ourselves and deflect from our educational and research goals when we use a hodgepodge of terms—totalist, high-demand, closed, authoritarian, and so on. These are all well and good. I’ve got nothing against them, really. In fact, I myself have been guilty of this exercise in avoidance. But in reality, aren’t we really just shying away from saying it like it is?
I was quite heartened last month when the British Crown Prosecution Service ruled that the word cult was neither “abusive [n]or insulting.” This was in relation to the London police issuing a summons to a young man picketing at one of the Anonymous demonstrations in front of the Scientology HQ there. The police insisted the boy remove his placard with the word cult on it. When the summons got thrown out, his mother said the decision was “a victory for free speech” —and indeed it was.
What Does the Future Hold?
As I wrote in my book Bounded Choice, “The combination of charismatic leadership, a transcendent belief system, personal commitment, and social and psychological pressure is the key dynamic.” It’s key to the transformation of the individual from dedicated believer to deployable agent and is the core of what we must strive to convey to others. Submitting oneself to the domination of a charismatic leader is an intimate and complex process; it is unique to each leader and each devotee. Yet, by examining the similarities of charismatic influence and control in its various forms, we stand to gain a more profound understanding of this enigmatic phenomenon. We also become better equipped to share our knowledge with other concerned professionals and the general public.
So much is happening in today’s world where we can contribute. A never-ending series of events is calling us:
The recent situation with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community in Texas
The prophet/leader of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, convicted last year of being an accomplice to rape for performing a wedding between a young man and a 14-year-old girl, and facing more charges in Arizona
The wildly creative Anonymous protests around the world
The incessant flow of vulnerable individuals into terrorist organizations
And there are plenty of other incidents:
Three large “dream homes” set afire by eco-terrorists, the Earth Liberation Front, a group that, along with the Animal Liberation Front, has committed and claimed responsibility for hundreds of criminal attacks in the past decade. This one did seven million dollars in damage
A group of followers (including at least four children) of a Russian cult leader who barricaded themselves in a cave about 400 miles southeast of Moscow for more than seven months waiting for doomsday
A media interview with an egocentric cult leader claiming to be the Messiah, who admitted on tape to “lying naked” with three underage girls (one as young as 12 years old), and got busted and charged with criminal sexual contact with a minor about a week after the program aired on the National Geographic channel
All of this and more tells us that ideological extremism is alive and well. Cults thrive on ideological extremism. Through well-known mechanisms of influence and control—patterns we’ve seen time and again in these groups—individual lives become more and more constrained, sometimes gradually, sometimes rather quickly. Minds are shaped to respond in cult-approved ways. In the case of those who are born or raised in a cult, these controlling influences are everywhere around them, from birth, from childhood on. Growing up in such an environment may leave an imprint far beyond what many of us can begin to comprehend.
I’m currently engaged in a research project interviewing people who were born or raised in a cult. What’s unique about the population I’m interviewing is that all of these people left the cult on their own, either in adolescence or early adulthood. I am so humbled and awed by the life stories that these brave people are sharing with me. And the good news is, they survive. They build lives, they have relationships, they go to school, they establish careers, they figure out their emotions and what they believe in, they valiantly struggle with identity issues and with practical life matters, often without a helping hand.
It’s been clear for some time now that this is the new population that demands our attention. Their experiences, their insights are adding a whole new dimension to our knowledge base. Because of them, I would submit that the scientific understanding of “resilience” will be greatly expanded. They, too, are our heroes.
I read something on the Internet the other day: A Ph.D. professor wrote, “Suicide bombers are hardwired to become killers,” meaning they were born that way. Personally and professionally, I don’t believe that for a minute.
In fact, new brain research is showing us that the years of the “hard-wired” traditionalists are over. This new area of study, called neuroplasticity, is about whether or not the brain is fixed or flexible in its structure and capabilities. And, from this research, we are learning that the adult brain can change, that “the human brain is almost infinitely malleable…. People used to think that our mental meshwork … was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case.” Even the adult mind is very plastic, they tell us. And these adaptations occur also at a biological level. If the brain has the ability to reprogram itself “on the fly,” as one neuroscientist put it, then surely our brains can also be tampered with by others who have influence over us. This new science serves us in two ways:
First, it will help substantiate our stance that, whatever we may want to call it, the process of brainwashing does exist. That people can be and are changed through the concerted efforts of cultic systems of influence and control.
When I wrote in a poem shortly after leaving my cult, “They took my brain and made me something other than I wanted to be…,” I didn’t have the scientific words for it then, but I knew I’d been brainwashed—and I knew I had done it to others, as well.
Second, neuroplasticity research gives us new ways to understand and study the recovery process after someone leaves a cult.
I conclude with a challenge and a hope. Cults come in all sizes and shapes, with a variety of beliefs and practices. But they aren’t really mysterious, as the media sometimes implies, leaving us with bewildering sound bites rather than substantive explorations that would shed light and bring clarity. We have some long-standing definitions and a set of characteristics that can be associated with these groups. Let’s stand by them. Let’s use them. Let’s be the ones to shed light. If a 16-year-old boy in London wasn’t intimidated by scare tactics, don’t you be either.
We can’t shy away from the new developments, such as in neuroscience, but neither should we forget the foundational works of Robert Jay Lifton, Edgar Schein, and Margaret Thaler Singer. The work of Bruce Perry is worthy of our attention. And, of course, we must not ignore the basic social-psychological explanations emanating from Asch, Milgram, Janis, Goffman, Cialdini, Zablocki, myself, and others.
Cults don’t really do anything new or different from what’s been done for eons. They are just very good at packaging influence and control in a very deliberate way. I believe it is our responsibility as a movement, and vitally important, to train and nurture the next generation of scholars and practitioners to meet this challenge.