The cult edition
I grew up on the West Coast in the aftermath of the 60s and 70s, in a smallish seaside city called Lotus Land. I was raised among hippie holdovers and New Age devotees who’d once lived on actual communes in Canada and America, and who seemed to have trouble shaking off that ethos, carrying its cult-tinged culture into everything from meditation groups to corporate life.
So it will probably come as no surprise that I have a bit of an obsession with cults.
Naturally, I read the deep-dive in Esquire this week with interest. The piece digs into the life of a former “follower,” who, as a teen, fell under the spell of a charismatic guru-type in her fifties. He went on to spend much of his adult life in a Staten Island “intentional community,” and paid a steep price for it, losing a small fortune, enduring thousands of hours of “feedback sessions,” missing out on having a family of his own, and being violently attacked and hospitalized.
According to Esquire’s reporting, the counterculture commune — which garnered a largely uncritical write-up in The New York Times in 1998 — appears to have the hallmarks of a cult. There’s the showering of new recruits in attention; the wearing down of self-confidence and independent thought through public scoldings; the promises of personal transformation; the financial exploitation; the insider language; the exhausting schedule; the inner circle; the isolation from loved ones; the transgression of sexual and social boundaries.
Here’s the most interesting part: The cult expert that Esquire consults maintains that cults exist on a spectrum. “You have Waco Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Children of God, and then you have groups that are far less destructive,” Rick Alan Ross says. “Jim Jones is a 10; Keith Raniere is a 9.”
So, Jonestown is a 10, but if your local yoga studio is insanely overzealous it could register as a 1? Nobody moves you to Guyana, but there’s heavy pressure from the head yogi to join daily, expensive, marathon 6 a.m. spiritual practise sessions, and you wind up regularly missing breakfast with your kids, or your spouse, or walking your dog, or calling your mom, or getting proper rest, or a thousand other life-affirming and grounding activities.
What I’m saying is that I buy that it’s a slippery slope.
Likewise, maybe the local activist group you get involved with is also a middling 1 on the cult scale, but nevertheless results in you losing a few acquaintances over its off-putting jargon and your increasingly dogmatic outlook. Not the end of the world, sure. But not exactly harmless, either.
It makes me wonder: At what point do these idealistic, utopian movements drift into cultish territory? Are most doomed to such excesses? Is there something in the human psyche that draws us toward this darkness?
And how many cults exist among us, hiding in plain sight, getting warm media coverage? Branding themselves as self-empowerment, or self-improvement, or sustainable living, or whatever.
Also: To what extent do these toxic fringe cultures seep into mainstream movements?
All of this is worth thinking through, and reading up on. Especially now, given how uncertain and unstable the world has become, and how isolated we have all been — and thus susceptible to the pull of extreme ideologies and tribal belonging.
One of the more compelling reads I’ve come across on all of this is Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell, which I reviewed for The Globe and Mail a while back:
In 1969, at the age of 14, Amanda Montell’s father was forced to join a Socialist commune near San Francisco called Synanon, a drug rehab community that morphed into a cult. Hearing the stories as a child sparked Montell’s “perverse craving for cult campfire tales” — as well as her sharp skepticism of anything that flirted with these tendencies. This wildly compelling outing is the result. It sees the Los Angeles writer delve into how language does the heavy lifting for extremist movements — cultivating an insider ethos with elaborate jargon, establishing a Manichean order of good and evil, shutting down critical thought and alienating participants from family, friends and mainstream culture. Drawing on illuminating interviews with former members of fringe movements, Montell moves on to observe how these patterns appear, albeit in far more benign forms, in everything from fitness crazes such as CrossFit and SoulCycle to Silicon Valley startups and digital New Age circles. Absolutely fascinating.
I’ve written in this newsletter, too, on fellow Substacker Lauren Hough’s recent memoir, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, that is, in part, about her experiences in The Children of God. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s an intriguing — and often darkly funny — outing.
Lastly, I’m reprinting a feature I published on cult lit in The Globe and Mail, below, which hit newsstands right before the pandemic.
Hopefully this satisfies any and all “cravings for cultish campfire tales” that you may have this weekend.
Cult literature makes for a darkly compelling read
Cults have long occupied a place in the public imagination. And with good reason. Such groups make for a darkly compelling storyline: the charismatic guru, the helpless followers, the promise of utopia, the subsequent isolation and oppression, and then the inevitable crash-and-burn as the group’s abusive practises are revealed and its leader exposed. It’s a narrative that we are increasingly drawn to — and baffled by.
The past several years of pop culture have seen a tidal wave of new cult stories, with the success of blockbuster fiction such as Emma Cline’s The Girls, loosely based on the Manson Family, as well as Netflix documentaries such as Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, about teacher Bikram Choudhury, and Netflix series such as Wild Wild Country, about the Indian religious leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Not to mention podcasts such as Heaven’s Gate, about the California cult that committed mass suicide, and CBC’s Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, on the New York sex cult active in Vancouver. Late last year, New Zealand novelist J.P. Pomare lit the Internet up once again with In the Clearing, a thriller inspired by the Australian cult The Family, due in bookstores here this September.
There are questions to be asked about the appeal of cults: why people join, and why they stay — and why we’re seeing this surge of interest in them now. As it turns out, the best place to ask these questions might be Canada, which is home to some of the most revealing recent titles on the phenomenon.
Vancouver actor Sarah Edmondson’s Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life, is among these books, providing a first-person account of the shadowy group. Before it was exposed that NXIVM’s inner circle recruited sex slaves for its leader Keith Raniere, NXIVM was known as a multilevel marketing scheme that peddled personal growth workshops, under the banner of its Executive Success Programs. Like myriad other self-help outfits in Lotus Land — where Edmondson founded a local chapter of the Albany, N.Y., organization — NXIVM offered pricey self-development seminars. These gatherings drew boldfaced names such as Smallville’s Allison Mack and Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, both of whom became part of NXIVM’s upper echelon. Edmondson, meanwhile, was one of the group’s most enthusiastic and financially successful salespersons, enrolling roughly 2,000 people.
After 12 years with the organization, however, Edmondson writes that she discovered its true nature, after being branded with a hot iron in a bizarre, traumatic ceremony. Together with her husband, she contacted the FBI. Raniere was eventually convicted of conspiracy, racketeering, forced labour and sex trafficking, and is in prison.
For some, Edmondson cuts a problematic figure, profiting as she has from both NXIVM’s rise and its downfall. Still, Scarred’s value is undeniable, offering instructive lessons on how cults operate, and identifying dynamics that surface throughout spiritual and self-empowerment communities, with varying degrees of destructiveness.
In Scarred, Edmondson clearly articulates the cultic pattern: the “love bombing” of new recruits, lavishing them with attention; the magical thinking; the long hours of indoctrination; the use of repetition to normalize the abnormal; the introduction of the idea that a recruit is fundamentally flawed, in a way they cannot grasp without group intervention, and must do emotional “work” to heal. Then, significantly, the suggestion that if a recruit is feeling uncomfortable, this points to a psychological issue — and to overcome it, they must ignore such instincts. (The old “if you’re uncomfortable, you’re growing” line.) Indeed, that one’s perceptions are inherently suspect. (In NXIVM parlance: “What do you make it mean?”)
Add to that the suppression of critical thought, and, of course, critical speech. Plus, ever-increasing demands on time, energy and money, and even diet, exhausting participants. All with the threat of judgment and social alienation if participants leave, or speak out.
Scarred complicates the prevailing belief that cult members are naïve or weak-minded, or from traumatized backgrounds, and reveals this for the oversimplification that it is. The illumination of these manipulation techniques goes a long way to solving the mystery of why people sign up, and why they stay.
Another recent Canadian memoir touches on similar themes. Amber Scorah’s Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, explores many of these same ideas, but in the context of religion.
The Brooklyn-based writer was raised in Vancouver’s Jehovah’s Witness community, eventually marrying an elder. In her book, she details how group demands shaped her entire life, from skipping university (because she believed the apocalypse was coming) to only working part-time (to meet her monthly preaching quota, up to 70 hours).
The turning point came for Scorah when she travelled to China with her husband to convert followers. Because such activities were illegal in that country, the community operated undercover and curtailed its meetings. Scorah found herself, for the first time, with some distance from her faith, exposed to radically different experiences and with time on her hands to contemplate them. She became involved with a man who was critical of the religion, and this outsider perspective gave her the push she needed to exit. In the process, she lost much of her family, friends and social network, who shunned her as an apostate, or nonbeliever. Leaving the Witness provides a window into that loss and just how devastating it can be.
Moving from first-person narratives to theory, Toronto’s Matthew Remski has, in recent years, been at the forefront of the global cult conversation. The writer and yoga teacher describes himself as a survivor of two cults, one Tibetan Buddhist and one New Age “Course in Miracles.” After he left these organizations, he immersed himself in research on cults, and went on to become an investigative writer, reporting on abusive sects in yoga for outlets such as The Walrus and Medium.com.
Remski’s riveting recent book, Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond, takes a deep dive into the “toxic group dynamics” at play, mainly in the context of Ashtanga yoga, referencing numerous interviews Remski conducted with women who allege its late founder Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted them.
In Practice and All is Coming, Remski probes the “classic cultic triad”: deception, dependence and dread of leaving. Groups lure participants by making grandiose claims of what they can offer, and then slowly take over every area of a participant’s life, while constructing elaborate barriers — real or imagined — to leaving. In the process, cults frame abusive behavior as love and community care, resulting in “disorganized attachment” patterns in participants, who, in the course of these volatile and deeply confusing relationships, often run toward the very people who are harming them for comfort.
Cults, Remski notes, draw on the principle of “intermittent reinforcement.” In this context, intermittent reinforcement means that a person can’t predict in any given moment whether they will be adored or attacked. That dynamic, Remski points out — referring to the work of Stanford neuro-endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky — has been shown to have a powerful effect on dopamine levels. “What the neuroscience seems to be saying is that this layered uncertainty may provoke an ever-deepening secretion of ardor,” he notes.
Meanwhile, as all of this is happening, isolation intensifies, on several fronts. “The follower is isolated from the outside world,” the author quotes psychologist and cult expert Alexandra Stein as saying. “He or she is isolated from an authentic relationship to others within the group — allowed only to communicate within the narrow confines of the groupspeak and rigid rules of behavior; and due to the dissociation that is created, the follower is also isolated from his or her self, from his or her own ability to think clearly about the situation.”
All told, Remski’s work is illuminating; after reading Practice and All is Coming, you’ll see cultic dynamics playing out in countless wellness, spiritual and self-help communities. His writing effectively moves the spectre of cults from the fringes to the very center of mainstream life.
It is Remski who finally provides an explanation for why we are so fascinated with cults at this particular point in history.
Researchers, Remski notes, suggest that people are most susceptible to cults when experiencing periods of situational vulnerability. “A death in the family, estrangement or divorce, an illness, a depressive period, an accident, losing a job, not being able to find a job, losing a strong home base — these are regular life events,” he points out. “They are also isolating junctures at which researchers suggest vulnerability to the promises and attachments offered by a high-demand group are heightened.”
We are, of course, in a time of grave uncertainty. Income inequality, precarious work, automation, the opioid crisis, the housing crisis and the climate crisis have all meant that more of us than ever are experiencing episodes of situation vulnerability, and more often. We are, now more than ever, susceptible to charismatic groups who promise to solve all our problems.
But there is good news here. Our collective fascination with cult research is likely a healthy response. As Remski points out, cult analysis literature “uniformly suggests that education about how high-demand groups work is key to weakening their power and reach.”
So, to the cult-obsessed among us: read on.