Kathy Reichs: Death du Jour.
Pocket Books, 1999. ISBN 0-671-03472-3
Chapter 22, pp 253-258
[Acknowledgments: Dr. James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, provided information on cults and religious movements.]

(slightly edited)


"What can you tell me about cults?"

"What do you mean by cult?"

"Fringe groups. Doomsday sects. Satanic circles. The Manson Family. Hare Krishna. MOVE. The People's Temple. Synanon. You know. Cults."

"You're using a very loaded term. What you call a cult someone else may see as a religion. Or family. Or political party."

"All right. What's a cult?"

"Cults are not just groups of crazies who follow weird leaders. At least the way I use the term, they are organizations with a set of common features."

"A cult forms around a charismatic individual who promises something. This individual professes some special knowledge. Sometimes the claim is access to ancient secrets, sometimes it's an entirely new discovery to which he or she alone is privy. Sometimes it's a combination of both. The leader offers to share the information with those who follow. Some leaders offer utopia. Or a way out. Just come along, follow me. I'll make the decisions. All will be fine."

"How does that differ from a priest or rabbi?"

"In a cult it's this charismatic leader who eventually becomes the object of devotion; in some cases he's actually deified. And as that happens, the leader comes to hold extraordinary control over the lives of his followers."

"Cults are totalistic, authoritarian. The leader is supreme and delegates power to very few. The leader's morality becomes the only acceptable theology. The only acceptable behavior. And, as I said, veneration is eventually centered on him, not on supreme beings or on abstract principles."

"And often there is a double set of ethics. Members are urged to be honest and loving to each other but to deceive and shun outsiders. Established religions tend to follow one set of rules for everybody."

"How does a leader gain such control?"

"That's another important element. Thought reform. Cult leaders use a variety of psychological processes to manipulate their members. Some leaders are fairly benign, but others are not and really exploit the idealism of their followers."

"The way I see it, there are two broad types of cults, both of which use thought reform. The commercially packaged 'awareness programs' use very intense persuasion techniques. These groups keep members by getting them to buy more and more courses."

"Then there are the cults that recruit followers for life. These groups use organized psychological and social persuasion to produce extreme attitudinal changes. As a result they come to exert enormous control over the lives of their members. They are manipulative, deceptive, and highly exploitative."

"How does thought reform work?"

"You begin by destabilizing a person's sense of self. Separate. Deconstruct. Reconstruct."

"Cults cut newcomers off from all other influences, then get them to question everything they believe in. Persuade them to reinterpret the world and their own life history. They create a whole new reality for the person, and in so doing they create a dependence on the organization and its ideology."

"But you're not talking about rites of passage. I know in some cultures kids are isolated for a period in their lives and subjected to training, but the process is meant to reinforce ideas the child has grown up with. You're talking about getting people to reject the values of their upbringing, to toss out everything they believe in. How is that done?"

"The cult controls the recruit's time and environment. Diet. Sleep. Work. Recreation. Money. Everything. It creates a sense of dependency, of powerlessness apart from the group. As it does that it instills the new morality, the system of logic to which the group adheres. The world according to the leader. And it is definitely a closed system. No feedback allowed. No criticism. No complaints. The group suppresses old behaviors and attitudes and, bit by bit, replaces them with its own behaviors and attitudes."

"Why does anyone go along with that?"

"The process is so gradual the person isn't aware of what's happening. You're taken through a series of tiny steps, each one seemingly unimportant. Other members grow their hair. You grow your hair. Others speak softly, so you lower your voice. Everyone listens docilely to the leader, asking no questions, so you do the same. There is a sense of approval by the group and of acceptance into it. The new recruit is totally unaware of the double agenda that's operating."

"Don't they eventually see what's happening?"

"Usually new members are encouraged to break all contact with friends and family, to cut themselves off from their former networks. Sometimes they're taken to isolated places. Farms. Communes. Chalets.

"This isolation, both physical and social, strips them of their normal support systems and increases their sense of personal powerlessness and need for group acceptance. it also eliminates the normal sounding boards we all use for evaluating what we're being told. The person's confidence in his or her own judgment and perception deteriorates. Independent action becomes impossible."

"I can see how a cult has control if you live under its roof twenty-four hours a day, but what if members work outside the headquarters?"

"Easy. Members are given instructions to do chants or meditation whenever they're not working. Lunch hour. Coffee break. The mind is occupied by cult-directed behaviors. And outside the job all their time is devoted to the organization."

"But what is the appeal? What drives someone to reject his past and turn himself over to a sect?"

"There is a system of rewards and punishments. If the member behaves, talks, and thinks appropriately he or she is loved by the leader and by the peer group. And, of course, he or she will be saved. Enlightened. Taken to another world. Whatever the ideology promises."

"What do they promise?"

"You name it. Not all cults are religious. The public has that idea because back in the sixties and seventies a lot of groups registered as churches for the tax break. Cults come in all shapes and sizes and promise all kinds of benefits. Health. Overthrow of the government. A trip to outer space. Immortality."

"I still don't see why anyone but a nutcase would fall for such crap."

"Not at all. It's not just marginal people who get sucked in. In some studies approximately two thirds of the respondents came from normal families and were demonstrating age-appropriate behavior when they entered a cult."

"Has your research shed light on why people seek out these movements?"

"Often they don't. These groups seek you. And as I've said, these leaders can be incredibly charming and persuasive."

"How many cults exist in the U.S.?"

"Depending on your definition, anywhere from three to five thousand."

"One of my colleagues estimates that over the past two decades as many as twenty million people have had some involvement with a cult. She believes that at any given time the number is two to five million people."

"Do you agree?"

"It's awfully hard to know. Some groups inflate their numbers by counting as a member anyone who ever attended a meeting or requested information. Others are very secretive, and keep as low a profile as possible. The police discover some groups only indirectly, if there's a problem, or if a member leaves and files a complaint. The small ones are particularly hard to track."

"How can people be so gullible?"

"It's seductive to think that you're elite. Chosen. Most cults teach their members that only they are enlightened and everyone else in the world is left out. Lesser in some way. It's powerful stuff."

"Are these groups violent?"

"Most aren't, but there are the exceptions. There was Jonestown, Waco, Heaven's Gate, and the Solar Temple. Obviously their members didn't fare too well. Remember the Rajneesh cult? They attempted to poison the water supply in some town in Oregon, and made threatening moves toward the county officials. And Synanon? Those fine citizens placed a diamondback in the mailbox of a lawyer who brought suit against them. The guy barely survived."

"What about small groups, the ones with less profile?"

"Most are harmless, but some are sophisticated and potentially dangerous. I can think of only a few that have crossed the line in recent years."