Cults R Us

Marshall Applewhite
What is a cult?

I'll confess - I don't like the term 'cult.' I prefer to use the term thought-reform group (or TRG). TRGs employ psychological tactics upon and among their members that suppress critical thinking skills and replace individuals' specific sense of autonomy and identity with a new, generalized identity, one that serves to parrot the leader and prop up his or her mission. TRGs use deceptive practices to achieve their goals: to recruit new members, to fund-raise, and to portray a rehearsed but false mask to the rest of society.

To understand how this sort of thing starts, and goes on for so long, you have to go back to the beginning, to the seeds of what makes a potential recruit vulnerable. The scariest notion - one that few understand - is that none of us are wholly safe from psychological coercion into a TRG environment. Sure, each of us are bombarded with thousands of manipulative suggestions and messages every day, in our interactions with colleagues and friends, and especially in advertising and in the media, but it's not the same thing.

We still put up defenses over time that make us numb to some of it. This makes us feel like we already know what it is like to resist psychological manipulation. You may even think that the notion of a thought-reform group is outdated and paranoid, and that any group - be it AA, or the local Church - should, by my explanation, qualify as a 'cult.' The word 'cult' is overused, true. The word itself has become a kind of cliche, sapped of any seriousness. Nowadays, it is used to mean any group of people with a similar interest.

Is joining a 'TRG' equally bad for all people? Aren't I being a bit dramatic?

No and no. The experience of the recruit hinges entirely on their predispositions when entering into the experience. Not all TRG recruits respond in the same way. Not all TRG experiences are traumatizing for certain types of people. It all depends on who you are and on your ability to recover from extreme conditioning. It depends on your emotional engagement going into the experience. In this sense, TRGs cannot be accused of being equally bad for all people. For some, they are formative gauntlets for strong people seeking to evolve and push their boundaries. For others, TRGs are catalysts to help get past fears of social interaction.

However, there is a dark side to the experience. I don't wish to speak in extremes, or to paint all situations alike, or to generalize, but the so-called improvements to damaged souls who enter the TRG space are short term, pyrrhic ones. Anybody who enters a TRG with pre-existing trauma, neurosis, and vulnerability will find that trauma exploited in the worst possible way. The extreme psychological pressure cooker inside a TRG enhances feelings of well being and acceptance, but the enhancement doesn't stop at positive feelings. Everything is amplified, but also distorted, and exaggerated. Nuances and complex distinctions are jettisoned in favor of easy answers, blanket solutions and oversimplified explanations. This rigidity of expectation actively impedes psychological growth, and in fact, stunts it. Those who shrug off the seriousness of their long term TRG involvement are only downplaying the abuse and exploitation suffered, if not by them, then by those around them.

It doesn't matter what the group teaches or how many members there are. Exploitation and psychological abuse are inevitable. It wasn't so bad? Try telling that to the thousands of ex members who feel differently, or the communities of recovering TRG survivors who gather to tell their stories and to help one another heal. For them, the trauma is real, and systemic, and consistent.

It rarely ends this way
How about mainstream coverage of cults? Is it overblown and sensational?

Much mainstream discussion of cults (or TRGs) is limited to murderous and sensational stories: Charles Manson's Helter Skelter, Jim Jones and Jonestown, Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate, and Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, to name a few. Those stories get eyeballs and clicks. They sell. They fascinate and horrify us. The themes of having one's sense of self stripped away, replaced with a new one, speaks to a fear of losing our minds. This popular fear plays out in stories like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Is the experience always so awful? What separates a cult from any organization that asks its members to work for a common purpose? Is the very idea of cults just a myth created to demonize certain groups, or is it something real we must guard against?

Most TRG experiences don't feature mass suicide and murder. Regardless of the degree to which the experience causes damage, all cult experiences speak to humans' propensity for self deception. They speak to our universal vulnerability to manipulation, and how easy it is to find ourselves lost in a world that feels safe, and yet, with the passage of time, increases our dependence on others for the most basic life decisions.   Involvement in a cult is often portrayed as a nightmarish descent into depravity, ego, and human fallibility. While that may be true in extreme cases, most destructive TRG experiences whittle away at the self determination we need to make informed decisions about our place in the world. This may not grab headlines the way that mass suicide does, but it is a real threat.

Why do I care?

From a very young age, I was fascinated by shady, apocalyptic organizations and scary figures like Jim Jones and Charles Manson. As sensational as those stories are, with their murder and mayhem, they belie the real threats from contemporary TRGs, most which do not condone physical violence or murder. The Helter Skelter / Jonestown tales are lurid and memorable, but making those awful stories the public face of cult behavior undermines the prominent role that more affluent, nondenominational TRGs play in subjugating their members to years, if not decade of psychological abuse. To look at the reality of 'cults,' we must put away our taste for blood and mayhem and instead direct our sights to what lasting effect thought reform has on any given individual swept up in the fervor of a group with a powerful, intoxicating group dynamic.

All in all, I blame the leaders who invent and enforce rules constructed to create a kind of 'pure' society. This sort of thing, a kind of idealistic Utopia, runs roughshod over the needs of the individual, but it even goes beyond that.  Leaders are the ones who construct a deliberate environment of forced but ephemeral purity and consistency. Those who enforce it are merely victims. I have nothing but compassion and sympathy for them.

What makes me such an expert?

It happened to a loved one after we met, and it led her down a long path that she and I both agree did more harm than good. Did the group tell her to do bad things? No. Did they put a gun to her head and force her to do anything? Of course not. Were the people bad? No way - a small handful of her friends from that time stuck around. Did the group dynamic exploit her vulnerabilities to get what it wanted from her? Yes. Was it ever as easy as her just up and leaving the group? No. Did the environment foster emotional growth? Ultimately, no. It merely fortified and expanded her learned dependency on authority, and it handicapped her ability to navigate complex relationships and to make decisions for herself. It also stripped her of her financial autonomy and left her virtually penniless.

You see, for some people, leaving a collective isn't as easy as it sounds. She eventually left, but doing so was very traumatic. Even the most headstrong among us, given the right circumstances, might find ourselves in a position similar to hers, and we'd endure the same torment, and the same crippling fear and anxiety that her dependence on the group and her fear of leaving it exacerbated. The experience was not wholly without meaning, or reward, but it carved a hole in her life, one that she still tries to fill, many years later.

Kip McKean, leader of the 'Sold Out Disciple Movement"
What does the thought reform process do to a person?

Imagine that one day, someone very close to you joins a club. As a result, the person you knew disappears overnight. Their inflections change. The look in their eyes shifts. You rarely hear from them, if at all, and when you do, they're shadowed by someone you've never seen before who monitors their interactions with non-members. These advisers instruct them who they can and cannot see. You never get a clear explanation about what exactly is going on. It's as if the language they speak in communicating this new world of theirs to you, is a foreign tongue, with its own lingo and expressions. You feel as though they have been stolen outright, and the personality shifts are so radical that you feel as though they have been possessed. But you don't fight them, and you don't actively question their decision because their elation and happiness is palpable and demonstrable.

Still, something feels off, rushed, unnaturally manufactured and rehearsed. At the end of it all - be it months or years later (there is always a day of reckoning for anybody deeply involved in a TRG) - the ex-members find themselves fighting the same feelings you did, only much more so. Some suffer immensely. Most of the worst, lasting effects emerge long after deeply entwined power relationships have come to define the member's sense of self. The longer their dedication and commitment to the cause, the deeper the internal rifts and divides in the aftermath. Some ex-members cannot, for a time, sleep at night for fear of not waking up. Others find that the world they once knew feels as foreign and unfamiliar as an alien planet.
They struggle to apply their TRG behavior that worked so well for them in the wider world, and find it incompatible and lacking. They see the world as a frustrated outsider, one who has been stripped of the tools to engage in healthy, balanced relationships. In the 'us versus them' environment of the TRG, every gesture is a strained didactic, every public encounter has an ulterior motive, and every relationship comes with a fierce power subtext. Members are ritualistically adhered to a series of grave promises that cannot be amended, with the constant threat of ostracism or derision .

Is there something to be learned from all this?

Before, during, and after a prolonged experience inside the constructed reality of a TRG, members traverse a minefield of challenges that fracture and upend notions of personal identity and one's relationship with the world at large. The knowledge I gleaned from my personal experiences in dealing with TRG-related trauma, along with my research and fact finding endeavors, has given me unique insight into the phenomenon. Cults perform 'psychological abuse.' Membership in a TRG subjects members to abuse from other members and from TRG leadership, but it also teaches the abused to abuse others. This is all in the guise of maintaining order and self-control, all things that sustain the illusion of a 'safe' environment where the dangers of the outside world cannot intrude. 

My research has taken me through a broad spectrum of subjects - from social and behavioral psychology, to thought reform and group-think, to psychological warfare, constructed realities, peer pressure, learned and adapted behavior... the list goes on. The raw data on the phenomenon supports my views on the exploitative and dangerous qualities of extreme TRG environements. I could point to documented research on the substance of a group's teachings, rapid shifts in members' Meyers Briggs psych profiles (which are not supposed to shift quickly), former and current members' testimonials, tactical indoctrination playbooks, and spreadsheets related to recruitment and membership decline for any number of groups. At the end of the day, though, this is a human interest topic. My interest in the subject goes deep, as you probably realize by now, but it is, above all other things, intensely personal. It's about relationships. It's about love. It's about the way we choose to seek growth in our lives. It's about guarding against influences that infantilize us and keep us from making informed choices.
Jim Jones... one of the most skilled manipulators in history
Why is any of this a bad thing?

Because it's abuse. Any experience that leaves someone in this kind of disarray qualifies as emotional abuse. Any experience that also teaches the abused to abuse others qualifies as a TRG experience.

Some ex-memberssdismiss their long involvements as insignificant when discussing it publicly, but privately they  may recognize that becoming and staying inside that manufactured reality for so long has caused damage on multiple fronts. Time spent on the 'inside' separated them from the raw complexity of the outside world. It caused them to make financial and emotional decisions that diverged them from a position of power and control over their destiny. It simplified their perception of the world - allowing them to sidestep certain traumas when confronting them became too wearying. It replaced their toolkit for self healing (if they had one in the first place) with a toolkit that allowed them to ignore their needs and focus on persuading new members to 'get with the program.' It radicalized their perception of others' motivations and undermined their ability to cope with complex relationships.

In most TRGs, indoctrination is a systematic psychological deconstruction of your sense of self. That may sound complex, but it boils down to exercises that culminate into a series of questions. You are asked these questions and expected to respond a certain way. The questions are loaded. They are designed to lead you down the same exact path of self-realization that everybody else who has sat in that room with study partners has walked down. It is, in essence, like a choose your own adventure novel, where each perceived 'choice' leads you to the same conclusion. Along this narrative, your narrators and guides pivot through a series of roles: that of your cheerleader, potential partner, authoritarian, teacher, and master. Even in these beginning stages, you already get a taste of the push and pull of psychological manipulation that will define your time with the TRG. Membership becomes the only acceptable answer to a rehearsed logic puzzle crafted by this indoctrination process.

Eventually, in time, you may be the one asking the questions of someone new, and you will relish the feeling of sitting on the other side of the fence. Even as you do so, you will not see that just as you had no choice, you are not giving them a choice, either. For the long standing TRG member, the allure of staying in the group is compelled by fear. Fear of leaving, fear of social ostracism and psychological torment, fear of being alone and unprotected, fear of going to hell, or backsliding, or falling away from a God-given purpose. Fear is the primary motivation, but it is not the only one. The allure of power hits especially hard for the cult member. This differs from the ordinary urges of ambition we experience in our daily lives - the urge to better ourselves, to get that raise or new title, to rise above our station. The promise of promotion or elevation in a job or in life is not a bad thing. We live for those moments. In hyper-controlling and extreme conditions of a TRG, however, the promise of power is nothing more than a poison carrot on a stick. And that, in a nutshell, is why it's a 'bad thing.'

Congress crowned Sun Myung Moon in 2004. Yes, this really happened
What makes joining a TRG any different from joining a Church? What makes it different from joining the military, the rotary club, or birdwatchers anonymous? How is indoctrination, membership and recovery in a TRG any different from joining any number of groups that engage in psychological coercion? 

When I speak of TRGs, I strive for distance from the word 'cult,' with its connotations of robes and daggers and bloody altars and poison-spiked drinks. Indoctrination into a TRG only takes a little structured training, and susceptibility, like I mentioned before, depends on the person being appealed to join. Have you ever inhabited a period defined by a recent loss, a job transition, a life upheaval, a divorce, a breakup, or a period of deep searching and depression? That's when you're most vulnerable. TRG involvement is more intense and more extreme than mere subjugation to an ad campaign, or pressure to join the office betting pool, or other such things. It belongs on a different scale due to the rigor of indoctrination and the top-down structure of the power hierarchy of the group as a whole. It appeals not just to our wants, but it goes deeper, to our absolute needs, to our purpose on this planet.

Corporations and organizations may share some overlap with TRGs, but most corporate and military machines are too simply too broadly intertwined with secular culture idiosyncrasies to be truly 'not of the world,' as most 'cult' environments are. These military and corporate machines create conditions wherein the chain of command is tasked with both empowering and restricting individual choice. With TRGs, its all restriction, all the time.

In a thought-reform environment, you aren't merely dedicated to conforming your efforts and desires to that of the leader, or of the group. You are also expected to conform your personality, your very identity, and subsequently your innate self-perception, in fundamental ways. Doing so is essential to your continued identity as someone of value in the group. Refusal to shift this fundamental perception of yourself - and even how you approach others - means that the foundation holding up your sense of self could face imminent collapse. Soon, members' understanding of the consequences of their own choices become diminished, and a lucid perception of the outside world fades into a blur.

When I speak out against TRGs, am I seeking to eradicate them? 

No. The propensity for people to get swept up in movements and common causes is not something to fear. It is something to embrace. What I speak out against is totality, rigidity, autocracy, and the all-or-nothing extremism that defines a psychologically destructive thought-reform group. These sorts of groups are not on every corner. They aren't lurking in your driveway or basement. But they do prey on vulnerable people in need with a false sense of security, simplicity and fraternity. While positive relationships can flourish in such an environment, it is the deception upon which the premise of the group is based - a deception far beyond the reach of most of its members - that rots the core of the arrangement.

Such collectives will never be eradicated. They are linked with human development and human history. I only seek to use my experiences to educate about the dangers of handing over our autonomy to those who would insist they are the authorities over our lives. These people insist they represent our greater good, and while that may sometimes be the case, it is important to temper their advice with flexibility, an open mind, and self-nurturing. We should not shut out the world in order to save it, or to save ourselves. Any group that separates us from variety and diversity in thought and opinion can't be good for our personal and collective evolution. 


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