This article originally appeared on truthdig.com
Maggie was born into a religious cult called the Christ Brotherhood. For the first 12 years of her life, the cult controlled her entire existence, including what she thought and knew, and how she was to behave. The precepts of Christianity and Judaism were both taught, and Christmas and Hanukkah were celebrated. Except for those holidays, however, life was a continuous struggle to get enough food to eat, and to avoid punishment for transgressions she never understood.
The community consisted of about 150 people spread throughout the country. Maggie recalls that when the cult leader, Thomas Paterson Brown, was incarcerated for raping and sodomizing a 14-year-old girl—the daughter of a cult member—the children of the community were put into foster care. When Brown was released, his parole conditions forbade him from contact with children under 18. To avoid those restrictions, the community moved to the Canary Islands, near Spain. Maggie is still not clear how the children were released from foster care and returned to the cult.
“My father was one of the founders, but the leader called the shots,” Maggie says. “Some of the girls were raped by the leader. While he was in prison, serving his time for having sex with underage girls, he invited some of the men he met in prison to come and join our church. One of the guys he brought home after his release molested the boys.”
Their world was built around punishment and disparagement. Maggie says that the cult’s children had to beg for food on the streets. Nuclear families were forbidden, so children were not protected by their parents. Violence against women was common. When Maggie’s mother was three months pregnant, she was gang-raped at gunpoint by several men in the community.
At age 11, Maggie was accused of being a whore. She was banished to the nearby forest in Tenerife. No one checked to see if she was safe.
“Being punished constantly was not unusual,” she says. “I just believed what I was told. I was taught never to question anything. I was used to being hungry all the time.”
When the group eventually petered out, Maggie was placed in school, although she had had no previous formal education. What she had learned about the world was primarily from reading any books she could find, as well as the Bible. There are still huge gaps in her education today. Her cult peers have serious drug problems, and there have been several suicides.
“We will never be able to function fully as adults,” Maggie says. “We have no frame of reference or understanding of social norms on how to function in society. I’m in group therapy, on medications, and I have a little job. Every day is a struggle. Still, I’m one of the lucky ones.”
For some who have been part of cults, their experiences may mirror Maggie’s, but cult relationships can also be defined more broadly.
Today, there are online cults, with followers strictly at a distance. Some cults consist of just a few people, who may or may not ever meet the cult leader. A cult may have several lieutenants on the ground who interact with followers. There are also cultlike experiences that involve just two people.
With alienation, stress and loneliness a fixture in our society, experts on cults say that people are increasingly susceptible to seeking a quick fix, to finding solace, to providing answers to the questions they have about life and their circumstances. They can fall prey to individuals whose charm and appeal mask narcissistic and sociopathic behaviors.
Such predators are a common element across the range of cults. They exercise control over other members of a group—or even a single person. That control can take the form of dictating the behavior of others, taking their money, and/or using others for sexual satisfaction. They often drip charisma, defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.
“It is all about leaders,” according to Janja Lalich, a researcher, author and educator specializing in cults and extremist groups. She says that most people get recruited into a cult by friends, family or coworkers.
Women are particularly targeted for exploitation. They make up 70% of cults, vastly outnumbering men. The societal pressure for them to be compliant is far stronger than for men, and because of that, it is easier to recruit women who will form an attachment to a male leader.
“Women are expected to follow along and not make waves, not be assertive,” says Lalich, a sociology professor at California State University at Chico. “Women tend not to trust their gut, which has more to do with our culture and socialization than any fault of the women.
“Power and control are the objective, usually along with financial exploitation. And in many, many cults, sexual abuse is rampant,” Lalich says. “The sexual exploitation is a crucial factor in gaining power over women.”
Leaders and other charismatic recruiters often use “love-bombing” to hook a person into their cult.
Love-bombing was practiced by The Family International, a 1960s-era cult in Huntington Beach, Calif. Later, the founder of the Unification Church, Sun Myung Moon, used the technique to recruit members for his cult, who came to be identified as “Moonies.”
Love-bombing involves the use of intense flattery and praise directed by the predator to his prey. It works when a target is particularly vulnerable and unstable—if someone is lonely, in a period of change or loss, or at a new college or city.
Donna Andersen fell victim to this behavior. Although she was an educated and successful businesswoman, that didn’t protect her from the lures of her future husband, a man who had recently moved illegally to the United States from Sydney.
“He was very charming and had great ideas about starting a business together,” she recalls. “My husband used the ‘love bombing’ technique on me, and I fell for it big time. I had no reason to question him in the beginning.”
Andersen’s husband snared her with flattery and lies about his professional accomplishments and military honors, then committed adultery and stole from her.
“We were already married when his deception came to light,” she says. “He wanted my money, and when the money ran out, he was gone.”
Andersen established a company, Lovefraud.com, and has written books to help women recognize the sociopathic personality disorder her husband exhibited.
Other stories have more tragic endings.
Sharon Stern killed herself on April 25, 2012. She was a college student at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., studying for a master’s degree in dance and theater. It was there that she met Katsura Kan, a 70-year-old Butoh master. He was a guest teacher at Naropa.
Butoh is an avant-garde form of dance theater created in response to the horrors of World War II in Japan. It is described as a “dance of darkness” and involves grotesque, extreme movements, including graphic sexual allusions. Stern wanted to learn Butoh.
She became a teaching assistant to Kan. Soon after, her father, Tibor Stern, began to see dramatic changes in his daughter’s behavior.
“We entrusted our bright, happy daughter to this school and she came home in a casket,” he says.
Stern describes his daughter as totally exploited by Kan. She divorced her husband to show her devotion and love for the Butoh master.
“Katsura Kan convinced her to ask for money from us, her family and friends, that she would give to him. Our repeated attempts to get her to come home were ignored,” Stern recalls.
After her death, they found a disturbing email she had written to Kan:
“I AM MORE than imperfect. I am fat, ugly, stupid girl. I have nothing left but desire to connect with human race, escape time and subconscious. I guessing I must let go of attachment to KAN. KAN has wife and child. SHARONI has garbage, piles of garbage everywhere. I have only one very honest very sincere wish left. TO GO WITH KAN to some countryside and FAST, no food, no water. Need no bed. No shower. NO TIME. TO become empty. Want to shake this curse away.”
Stern alleges that his daughter wasn’t the only one under Kan’s spell, and that Kan had created a cult filled with female dance students from around the world who were under his control.
Stern established an organization to help educate families about cults, Families Against Cult Teachings. He also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kan, which he won, for undue influence on his daughter that caused her suicide.
Cult experiences can also take the form of workshops, seminars, advancement programs and training sessions that claim to bring self-awareness and transform participants’ personal lives or improve professional skills. These types of events, called Large Group Awareness Training. Some are noted for being unconventional and often take place over several days.
Some of these programs are not what they appear to be. Victoria Brauker attended such a program through her workplace. She loved her new job and had ambitions to progress. When her employer invited her to take part in a three-day “communication training,” it sounded great.
“My employer had been introduced to this company by the wife of a newly hired employee. I was looking forward to a new training for my job. Unfortunately, I got uncomfortable right away,” she says.
Brauker began to feel uneasy when the leader pointed out several women in the group and yelled that they had let the team down. He berated the women for wasting the team’s time when they asked to use the bathroom.
“Then he started screaming at us and pretended to cry,” she recalls. “He was uncomfortably loud. It was when he told us to look at the person to our right and left and tell them they had no meaning that my nerves were on high alert. I was alarmed when the room was darkened and a godlike voice was played on a [tape] recorder.”
The final straw for Brauker came when the leader told half the audience in the dark room to put their arms by their sides, close their eyes and allow themselves to be hugged by another participant, possibly a stranger.
“I did not attend the third day,” she say. “I find these instructions highly unethical, and I refused to participate in them. I texted my daughter that I had probably flushed my career by leaving early.
“What happened to me was dangerous and has made me anxious, fearful, nervous, unsettled and feeling extremely vulnerable. I lost five nights of sleep and more days of work than that,” she says.
Rachel Bernstein, a marriage and family therapist in Encino, Calif., warns that group awareness trainings can be damaging and even dangerous.
“They often have you sign a thick stack of documents,” she says. “You basically sign away your rights to sue if something goes very wrong. They will present them to you and give you no time to read them. While possibly not as dangerous as some other cultlike circumstances, some attendees have ended up in psych wards.”
Some groups pick names that imply association with a legitimate business or a university. The first session will usually not be expensive, but participants will be aggressively invited to sign up for the “advantages” they can get at the next level. The crowd is often peppered with people who work for the cult and claim the training is the best thing that has ever happened to them. When they break the crowd up into small groups, they expose participants to “manufactured closeness.” Participants may be pushed to publicly share their deepest fears or most traumatic experiences with people who are not mental health professionals. Bernstein says these confessions help establish a commonality of experience and identity, and are used as hooks.
Patrick Ryan, a Philadelphia cult mediation specialist, studies such issues as mind control, destructive groups, parental alienation, brainwashing, abusive relationships, multi-level marketing, gurus and forms of undue influence. His primary occupation is to help people leave groups, and he also helps families and friends discern and address a loved one’s cult involvement.
Ryan notes that “any good manipulator can make a person’s family look wrong.” His process involves helping families understand their loved one’s world view and establish the importance of family ties. Less emphasis is placed on getting the cult member to leave the group. “We help families start a dialogue. It’s not confrontational,” he says. “Would you want to go home if every conversation you have is harassment?”