Cults and control: Why do people fall for the tricks of cult recruiters?

Cults and control: Why do people fall for the tricks of cult recruiters?

| The Press | Philip Mathews |

Janja Lalich lives in northern California, across the bay from San Francisco. An ideal spot, you might think, for a specialist on cults. This is where some of the worst flourished. There was Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and, further down the coast, Charles Manson’s Family and David Berg’s Children of God.

California: the cradle of kookiness and darkness in equal measure.

“That’s a huge generalisation,” Lalich says by phone from her home state. “Sometimes cult leaders like to go where there are nice climates. But there are cults everywhere, for sure.

“I think what happened, especially in the 1970s, during the hippie era, California became known as the place with all these crazy groups. It has nothing to do with California.”

That era produced the right conditions. There was social turbulence and crowds of idealistic young people looking for someone or something to believe in or follow. They were easily exploited. As Lalich says, idealism is a key ingredient.

She has more than just academic expertise. She has personal experience.

When she is asked how smart people are lured into cults, she points out that two-thirds are introduced to a cult by a friend, family member or co-worker, and it’s not always easy to say no.

“Also, the message must resonate. I couldn’t have joined a meditation cult as I can’t sit still, but I joined a political cult.”

It was called the Democratic Workers Party and she joined it in the volatile 1970s. The cult was led by Marlene Dixon, a sociologist who, in an echo of today, was fired from the University of Chicago for getting involved in political demonstrations. Dixon moved to the San Francisco area and formed a radical party along Leninist lines, with study groups acting as a front. Lalich was involved in recruiting.

Members were given new names. Lalich was Comrade Emma. Former members say Dixon grew increasingly narcissistic and paranoid and they finally expelled her and dissolved the party in 1986.

After her cult experience ended, Lalich tried to make sense of what happened. In the 1980s, the cult studies field was dominated by religious cults.

“They had Jesus, we had Karl Marx,” she remembers. “They had the Bible, we had the cadre training manual. There were parallels, they were just called something different.

“I was really concerned. I was in a left-wing cult. I didn’t want to become a right-wing maniac, which is what happens a lot. When people leave religious groups, they struggle with ‘Was it God that betrayed me? I’ll never be religious again.’ There is that gut reaction.

“So I did a lot of research and study. I didn’t go to grad school for 10 years afterwards. I had to figure myself out. I had to get my brain back together, my life back together. I was in my 40s already. But then at 50, I signed on for grad school and then got more and more involved in this work.”

Her doctoral dissertation covered both the Democratic Workers Group and the Heaven’s Gate cult, which was notorious when 39 members committed mass suicide in San Diego, California, in 1997 in the hope of ascending to a passing comet. She coined the phrase “bounded choice” to describe the way people belong to these groups, and that became the title of a book.

Another book, Escaping Utopia, covers how children are raised in cults. That will be a focus of Lalich’s appearance in Christchurch in October as a keynote speaker at the first Decult conference, organised by author and journalist Anke Richter, whose own journey into the ever-fascinating subject is covered in her book, Cult Trip.

Richter met Lalich in the US two years ago and describes her as one of the world’s top five cult experts. Getting her to Christchurch is a real coup. And although Lalich, who is now 79, has retired from university teaching, she continues to run the Lalich Center to help survivors, appears as an expert witness in court cases and as an informed specialist in the growing area of cult documentaries. If you spend much time on Netflix, you might recognise her.

The three kinds of cults

As Lalich says, cults are everywhere. But they are also nowhere. That is, they exist and flourish online.

The US “spiritual community” called Twin Flames Universe is a good example. Founders Jeff and Shaleia Ayan claim to help people find their soul mate, or twin flame, and they assign “flames” to followers. This led to accusations of coercion and psychological manipulation. Some women followers even claimed they were pressured to undergo gender transitioning to become a “Divine Masculine”.

Lalich appeared as an expert in Escaping Twin Flames, which was one of two high-profile documentaries about the group in 2023. But despite the attention, it is still going.

“Yes and they have 50,000 followers,” Lalich says. “It’s shocking. There are now investigations going on, both criminal and financial and all of that, but these things always take so much time.”

The Twin Flames gimmick was that indoctrination courses were done over YouTube and Facebook rather than in physical meetings. Lalich says that both cults and terror groups did some recruiting online before Covid, but it took off during the pandemic.

“For a lot of them they’re much harder to get a grasp on than what I now call the run of the mill brick-and-mortar cults, where you always know who the leader is, you know where they are and you know where their satellites are. For example, who were the leaders of QAnon?”

The conspiracy movement QAnon had cult-like elements, as did the anti-vax communities that emerged during the pandemic and lockdowns. One other thing Lalich noticed is that these groups, “who found support online but also found each other physically”, acted outward towards society, which is unusual.

“Most cults only act inward. The only way they go outward is either to recruit or to do financial finagling or maybe to get praise by having the Dalai Lama come. But they typically don’t attack the outside world. They just go after their own members.”

By contrast, there was much more public activity from QAnon and even the anti-vaxxers, including attacks on mask-wearers. That was heightened by the social atmosphere in the US as “we had a president who at the time was giving voice to those same ideas and encouraging that us-versus-them mentality”.

Yet that also points to a looser definition of cults. An article posted on Lalich’s website describes three kinds of cults. They are spiritual, psychological or political.

In New Zealand terms, Gloriavale is clearly spiritual. But Centrepoint was probably psychological, as it emerged from the consciousness-raising “encounter group” philosophies of the 1970s, as adopted by vacuum cleaner salesman-turned-cult leader, Bert Potter.

“Again, that was a product of the time,” Lalich says. “The same thing happened with the Rajneesh ashram movement. That was all about free love, free sex, being who you want to be, blah blah blah. No boundaries, no restrictions. And of course child sexual abuse happened in those ashrams as well.”

QAnon and anti-vax movements could be called political, but the charismatic leaders and enforcement of behaviour common in cults are not present. There are similar problems when defining churches as cults.

Destiny Church and Arise Church will be discussed at Decult. Both are pentecostal churches that expect loyalty and commitment, and have left some former followers emotionally bruised, but are they cults?

What complicates the question is that when churches are defined as cults, it often comes from other churches over doctrinal issues, such as when Destiny was called a cult in 2010 over leader Brian Tamaki’s reported denial of the physical resurrection of Jesus.

Richter says it is not her job to slap the label “cult” onto such groups, “but I think we can give enough information from people who have come out of those groups, and let the attendees decide for themselves”.

Parallel to “deculting” is the idea of deconstruction, a term used by Christians to describe the process of getting out of a controlling megachurch. While Lalich is not an expert, she has concerns about people simply leaving one church for another.

“If somebody’s been in an abusive relationship with a church or a guru, they need to go through a period of recovery, dealing with what happened and figuring out how and why it happened. If people too quickly get involved in something else, the same patterns can happen. We call them cult-hoppers, people who go from one cult to the next because they never quite undid all the indoctrination and how it really traumatised them and affected them.

“But I’m not saying the deconstruction movement is bad. It seems like it has a positive point of view, a positive approach.”

Compassion and titillation

This will be Lalich’s first trip to New Zealand. While here, she will meet with Gloriavale leavers in Timaru, deliver a psychology lecture at the University of Canterbury, meet MPs in Wellington and maybe manage a few moments of sightseeing.

She is one of three international speakers Decult has lined up so far. The others are Ulrike Schiesser, who heads the Federal Office for Cult Affairs in Austria, and British psychotherapist Gillie Jenkinson, who will take workshops on cult recovery. Christchurch Central MP Duncan Webb, a critic of Gloriavale, will open the conference.

The ever-growing number of cult documentaries and podcasts shows there is certainly an appetite. Richter, an avid consumer, reckons two New Zealand-made documentaries, Heaven and Hell: The Centrepoint Story and Escaping Utopia, which is about Gloriavale, are as good as any she has seen from anywhere. She values their victim-focused approach.

It is important to balance compassion and titillation, Richter says. In her view, the documentaries The Vow and Seduced, which cover the NXIVM cult, and Escaping Twin Flames also do a good job of showing why ordinary people get entangled in “something that’s potentially bad for them and bad for others and looks bats… crazy”.

With all this attention on cults, surely people are becoming wised-up to the tricks and techniques. We know how grooming happens. How recruitment happens. There was even a Netflix series called How to Become a Cult Leader.

Richter hopes that is the case, “but we are living in times when people are more susceptible to cult influence, because of the geopolitical situation”. People remain vulnerable. The disinformation that flourished during the pandemic hasn’t gone away.

“People are wising up,” Lalich says from California, “although I don’t think recruitment is slowing down, at least not from how many emails I get every day and how many people come to me for help. I think there is more general public awareness. I don’t think everybody just watches those documentaries for the scandalous thrill attractions. I think people are learning. Hopefully young people are learning.”

As for pushback, Lalich says she has been sued twice. Once was over a book she co-wrote that mentioned a particular group. They didn’t call it a cult, but the word “cults” was in the title. The other time was over an article about “a big lawsuit that happened because of sexual abuse”. She and the other experts who were interviewed were targeted.

“Neither of those suits went anywhere but it was really a pain in the ass at the time,” she says. “I sometimes get nasty emails from followers, or someone will say ‘I’m a lawyer representing such and such a group and you have to retract your statements’. I mostly just ignore all that.

“I do have a policy that there are some groups I just will not talk about because they are extremely litigious. I don’t typically like to come right out and say ‘Yes that’s a cult’. That isn’t the point. The point is what is the structure of the organisation, what are the behaviours, what are the practices, what are the expectations on members and what kind of pressure is being put on them.

“You can call it a high-demand group or whatever you want. But what I look for is the social structure. How people are being coerced and controlled.”

The Decult conference is in Christchurch on October 19 and 20. More information can be found online at