We Are All Vulnerable

The other day I was listening to the radio, and the subject of QAnon came up. In the piece, a cult exit counselor was talking to a staunch QAnon supporter. The discussion made me uncomfortable, because sounded like therapy; it was as though I was a voyeur, sitting in on something that ought to be private, while the QAnon supporter became something of a spectacle.

Although media coverage of topics like cults and QAnon are important, in that they help us understand the very real threat of radicalization, I sometimes struggle with how the coverage is handled. Oftentimes the subject comes off as “crazy,” or is treated like a circus sideshow. Rarely is the coverage nuanced enough to help viewers understand what indoctrination is and how it happens. More often than not, we come away thinking, “at least that could never happen to me.”

When the docuseries came out on HBO, detailing the rise and downfall of NXIVM, I decided to watch in order to help me understand some of my own history. Although my parents joined a different group, the Unification Church, back in the 1970’s, I wanted to come to a better understanding of how intelligent people can get coerced into cultic groups. One uncomfortable moment in the series is when Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse are in a coffee shop, talking to fellow patrons about what they’re filming. The exchange is awkward on a number of levels, partly because Mark and Bonnie are still processing their experiences, recent escape and how their world is crumbling as a result. But what is perhaps more cringe-worthy is when one of the patrons claims that she’s the kind of person that would never join a cult. Both Vicente and Piesse try to explain that the methods of indoctrination are nuanced and incremental, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

This is something that most survivors have experienced at least once. When someone says, “I’m not the kind of person that would ever join a cult,” the sentiment strikes me lacking of both education and empathy. And you know what? I’ve been one of those people who has judged survivors, despite being one myself. Because I never joined a cult, I just grew up in one, it was easy for me to think that all of the first generation members who did join were weak, broken, naive, etc. That was part of how I processed my anger at the people who tried to keep me in an abusive system. But that perception of cult members does a disservice, not just to the survivor, but to all of us. It means that we fail to recognize our own susceptibility and, as a result, can be that much more likely to fall victim to systems of control.

Who is susceptible to cult indoctrination?

Most of us want to think we aren’t susceptible to cults, or that we’ll be able to recognize cultic behavior from a mile away. It’s easy to think when so much media focuses on the more sensational aspects of cult life or the tragic ends that some faced in groups like The People’s Temple. What we see in many documentaries on cults is life inside the closed system. We’re able to contrast it with our daily lives and recognize the disconnect. Unfortunately, this portrayal marks the cult member as Other, and leads to the mistaken belief that cult followers fundamentally differ from those in larger society

The truth is, given the right circumstances, anyone can find themselves subjected to cult dynamics, or victimized by a cult. In their book “Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over” experts Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren state that the behaviors, social pressures and controlling structures that create cults actually exist, to some degree, in every human relationship. Therefore, they say, understanding cults is vital to our understanding of human groups, human relationships and the universal human longing.

According to the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), people join cults for many different reasons and there are many ways to enter a cultic group. ICSA’s research has found that about 25% of cult members were recruited by people who were strangers to them at the time, but a majority are recruited through friends or other relational affiliations.

These days we also know that people can get recruited by algorithms. Cult expert Steve Hassan has recommended the following documentaries: “The Great Hack”, “The Social Dilemma”, and “People You May Know” to understand how modern day authoritarian recruitment works.

According to therapist and cult expert Rachel Bernstein, people are most receptive to joining when they are stressed or in a normal transition. She says that people who were recently diagnosed with terminal or chronic illnesses, are living on their own for the first time, experienced the death of a loved one, or had a serious career blunder tend to be in fragile states, and therefore might join a group they might not otherwise. This means that all of us could face a point in our lives where we’re vulnerable.

Over the years I’ve heard many people claim that only broken people, or people with flawed characters/personalities, join cults. But according to the ISCA, there is no specific “personality profile” of people who become involved in cults. In fact, both the research and clinical work ICSA has done with thousands of former members suggests that those who join cults were experiencing stress frequently related to normal crises: romantic breakup, school failure, vocational confusion, or transitions, such as college graduation prior to their cult conversion.

Social psychologist Alexandra Stein, author of “Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems” agrees that a person’s “vulnerabilities are situational, not dispositional.” Anyone could find themselves vulnerable to manipulation and mind control if they came across a predatory person or group at the wrong time in their lives. Essentially, what makes us human makes us vulnerable.

And contrary to the idea that cults only prey on “broken” people, Stein says that “cults do not want dysfunctional or unproductive people; that would be a drain on the cult’s resources. They want functional, useful people who will contribute in some way.”

Hassan agrees. He says, “Cults don’t want people who are “disturbed” or unstable, because they can be more difficult to control.” In fact, he said that groups often target productive, smart people who can work and donate money to the cause.

Nobody joins a cult

In the words of Deborah Layton, survivor of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult:

Nobody joins a cult.

You join a self-help group, a religious movement, a political organization.

They change so gradually, by the time you realize you’re entrapped — and almost everybody does — you can’t figure a safe way back out.

Stein agrees with this sentiment. Personally, it’s something I’ve had to digest as I’ve considered my own parents’ involvement in a cultic movement. They likely thought they were joining a student project. No one told them it was the Unification Church. People were usually asked to a dinner through a front group, like the “The Creative Community Project” in Berkley. It was only after a 21 day workshop that anyone told my mother about Rev. Moon.

In other instances, people think they’re joining a political group, a business venture, or getting involved in a romantic relationship.

What I found profound about series like The Vow and Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, is that they try to take viewers on the journey of grooming and indoctrination that members experienced, so that we better understand that it’s an incremental process. We see how people thought they were joining a self improvement program, and were lured into the more insular levels over time. If a potential convert had been given access to all of the information about the belief systems, structures and abuses that went on in the group up front, they would never have joined. But over time they were cut off from outside influences, and manipulated into giving up more of their time, agency and money to the group.

So why do people join? Again, remember that they’ve been lied to about what they’re getting involved in, so they don’t know it’s a cult when they join. But people get involved with the group because are looking for purpose, a sense of community, or want to better themselves.

According to Stein:

First a person is lured to group or person who seemingly shares their interests and concerns. They may then be subject to a kind of love-bombing, given extreme amounts of attention, which can feel flattering and seem the sign of having found a safe place. Then begins an attempt to isolate the person from friends and family. The potential recruit becomes engulfed in a new system and out of touch with their old, known network.

That paves the way for the group to engage in “terror” tactics, arousing a sense of threat, whether it’s fear of the apocalypse, fear of being criticized, fear of the outside world, or some other group-specific fear. I believe attachment theory provides a good theoretical approach for understanding brainwashing, and it holds that people run to a safe haven when they are afraid. If the group has been successful, the recruit, now having had fear instilled by the group, runs to the only safe haven available-the group itself.

Protecting ourselves

The best way to defend against methods of control is to learn what they are. According to psychologist Steve Eichel, a recognized cult expert and former president of the ICSA, the first thing to look out for is any kind of pressure to make a quick decision about becoming involved in any intensive kind of activity, organization or relationship. He says:

  • “Be wary of any leader who proclaims him or herself as having special powers or special insight. And, of course, divinity.
  • The group is closed, so in other words, although there may be outside followers, there’s usually an inner circle that follows the leader without question, and that maintains a tremendous amount of secrecy.
  • The group uses deceptive means, typically, to recruit new members, and then once recruited will subject its members to an organized program of thought reform, or what most people refer to as brainwashing.
  • Typically cults also exploit their members….mostly financially. Within the group, they’ll exploit members financially, psychologically, emotionally and, all too often, sexually.
  • A very important aspect of cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible things will happen to you. This is important, and it’s important to realize. That people outside of a cult are potential members, so they’re not looked upon as negatively as people inside the cult who then leave the cult.”

So, why is it important to understand how cults work, and our own vulnerability to those systems? According to Stein, people who understand the mechanisms that cults use can see through them, which bolsters the ability to resist. “They are often able to remain detached, to hang on-even internally-to some sense of support outside the group and also to a personal identity. They have an awareness of being manipulated, and that can help counteract the process,” she said.

Understanding our own vulnerability also helps us to be more compassionate to survivors and helps to create better resources for those healing from cultic environments. Remember, cultic behaviors exist in all walks of life. People who have suffered this kind of abuse are not broken or stupid. The more we can shift the narrative away from that focus, the more we can help others in their deconstruction and healing.

If you have been in ANY high control group or religion, share your story with the hashtag #igotout. Share on your own platform OR if you need to be anonymous and / or would like support, there are resources at the I Got Out website.

When you see a survivor share their story, let them know they have been heard. This is such a meaningful part of the movement. We all need to know we’re not alone.

If you know someone who has been harmed by a high demand group, share #igotout posts you think would help them.

Together we can bring awareness to how many of us have been harmed by high control organizations and end the shame or stigma we might feel about our experiences.

Tell your story.

Impact lives.

Change the world.

Find out more at igotout.org

Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on March 20, 2021.

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store