The Making of a Cult
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because learning the art of manipulation is easier than it seems.
By Duncan Forgan, Frankie Mullin and Lisa Rogak
History is full of charismatic leaders with almost God-like powers of persuasion. Sometimes, like Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard, they start a religion. Sometimes they inspire something far darker. The tools of their trade — mind-control drugs, sleep deprivation, the promise of salvation, a knack for targeting the vulnerable — are strikingly similar.
Marshall Herff Applewhite
When it comes to modern-day cults, Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate — founded in the mid-1970s — was a bit of an anomaly. “To followers consisting of ex-hippies, new age spiritual seekers and budding techies, Applewhite preached a sci-fi version of salvation through personal growth, with a little help from ancient aliens, who they believed would take them beyond their earthly lives to the ‘Next Level,’ ” says Jim Siegelman, co-author of Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change. To ensure his followers were those most amenable to his teachings, Appelwhite weeded out all but the most devoted members over time. By the mid-1990s, members ran a technology company to support the group and were squeezing in work between Applewhite’s hourslong talks, which centered around his paranoid ideas that (a) the Earth was doomed, and (b) unspecified government agents were hounding the group due to members’ intelligence and shared beliefs. As Applewhite saw it, the only path to salvation was to hitch a ride on a spaceship and live among the aliens. In 1995, when astronomers discovered the Hale-Bopp comet, Applewhite announced to his followers that their spaceship had arrived. In March 1997, as the comet passed closest to Earth, all 39 Heaven’s Gate members committed suicide by ingesting applesauce laced with barbiturates, believing that they were on their way to a whole new world.
When David Koresh became the leader of the Branch Davidians, a breakaway sect of Seventh-day Adventists located in Waco, Texas, in 1990, he took advantage of their strong faith to fulfill his own warped desires for control. Koresh made up for his limited education with charisma, energy and the ability to quote — and twist — Scripture for hours on end while depriving his flock of adequate food and sleep. He told them he had a direct line to God, and that obeying God meant abiding by Koresh’s orders, which included having sex with him and submitting to physical abuse. “He drilled his adherents endlessly in his own perverted, paranoid, end-time worldview, and plied them with the true believers’ promise that, come what may, they could not die,” says Flo Conway, co-author of Snapping. When Koresh began to amass firearms for the imminent apocalypse, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was tipped off. Agents raided the heavily fortified stronghold on Feb. 28, 1993, sparking a standoff that ended 51 days later, when Koresh set fire to the compound, killing himself and 79 members, including 22 children.
Reverend Sun Myung Moon
The Rev. Sun Myung Moon was unique among cult leaders in that he had a game plan when he launched the Unification Church. “He created a cult to provide free labor for his business empire,” says Rick Alan Ross, author of Cults Inside Out. (In a statement to OZY, the Unification Church denied this claim.) After coming to the U.S. from South Korea in 1971, Moon attracted followers by proclaiming himself to be a messiah, there to complete the job that Jesus failed to do, and recruited people into the fold with techniques he had experienced firsthand as a prisoner of war in a North Korean prison camp during the Korean War. After attending an introductory weekend program, potential members were invited to a more rigorous 40-day retreat. Snapping co-author Jim Siegelman, who interviewed dozens of cult members as part of his research, notes that Moon and his lieutenants used intense eye contact, hourslong sermons and one-to-one recruiting thick with emotion. Sessions were reportedly accompanied by sleep deprivation, strenuous physical exercise and a diet consisting mostly of sugar, carbohydrates and caffeine (the Unification Church denied this, calling it “pure fantasy”). Once fully indoctrinated, “Moonies” either worked at church-owned businesses or hit the streets to solicit donations. Moon died in 2012, but the Unification Church and Moon’s billion-dollar international business empire — including fisheries, restaurants, media companies and real estate firms — continue.
In the late 1950s, Reverend Jim Jones tended a small congregation in Indiana, but he had long dreamed of more. By the mid-1970s, Jones had moved to California and grown his racially diverse Peoples Temple into a megachurch. “Jones used intense, emotion-filled sermons and classic Holy Roller healing techniques to position himself as a visionary who would lead [followers] to a promised land of complete racial, social and economic equality,” says Snapping co-author Flo Conway. Who could argue with that? But behind the scenes was a much darker story: Former members describe Jones as a paranoid drug addict who physically and sexually abused his followers, including children. As Jones’ behavior turned erratic and increasingly volatile, members abandoned the church, and local law enforcement and media began to poke around. Jones and nearly 1,000 followers relocated to Jonestown, an isolated jungle compound in Guyana, where Jones reportedly became even more violent and psychologically unstable while preaching imminent apocalypse. Back in California, Congressman Leo J. Ryan had met with worried constituents who had family members in Jonestown. In November 1978, Ryan flew to Jonestown with a group of reporters and photographers. Two days later, Ryan and four others were gunned down, and Jones ordered his followers to commit suicide by drinking Kool-Aid mixed with cyanide. More than 900 died, including around 300 children.
By the time Charles Manson was 32, he had spent half his life behind bars. Short in stature, the 5-foot-2 Manson honed his persuasion and manipulation skills to survive in prison, where he also became accomplished at singing and playing the guitar. Upon his release, he tried to break into the music business, but failed. Manson then shifted his focus, and applied his skills to acquire a group of loyal followers — mostly young, attractive women — by telling them he was Jesus and that he could see and direct the future. “Manson gave hallucinogens to his followers while he just pretended to take the drugs,” says Cults Inside Out author Rick Alan Ross. “He used their weakened grasp of reality and altered states to interpret their visions and impose his own altered reality on them.” Manson told his followers that the world was heading toward an apocalypse and a race war — which he viewed as a good thing — and that killing the rich and famous would expedite events, a message he derived from the Beatles song “Helter Skelter.” On Aug. 9 and 10, 1969, Manson directed a core group of followers to murder seven people, including actress Sharon Tate. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1971 and remains in prison. Manson has publicly denied ordering the murders.
Leaving a cult can be dangerous business. But for those who make the leap, living a normal life is the scary part.
With its profusion of giant massage parlors and short-term hotels, Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng neighborhood is more associated with happy endings than new beginnings. For Esther de la Cruz, however, it was here that she experienced her first rush of emancipation after leaving Family International, formerly known as the Children of God — the cult that had shaped virtually every aspect of her upbringing and worldview since birth.
Founded by charismatic pastor David Brandt Berg in 1968, the movement spread a message of salvation, apocalypse and distrust of the outside world, with thousands of members living in communes in various cities across the globe. Famous for its advocacy of free love and the use of sex as a way of spreading God’s word, the cult has been accused of legitimizing incest, pedophilia and other forms of abuse. It was also notorious for a practice known as “flirty fishing,” a form of evangelical prostitution in which attractive female members — “God’s whores” or “hookers for Jesus,” in the cult’s own parlance — would target potential male converts or sponsors. (In a statement to OZY, Family International denies that the group still engages in “flirty fishing,” saying it ended the practice in 1986.)
Born and raised in the cult along with her siblings in locations around the world — including rural Thailand — de la Cruz started feeling disillusioned by the age of 15 after being abused and manipulated by a sponsor. “There was a moment when I realized that people can and do lie — and that I had been lied to by everyone I grew up with in the group, including my parents,” she says.
De la Cruz left the cult three years later, a month after turning 18. She took a teaching job in Bangkok at the behest of a friend who had also defected. She arrived at the hotel her new employer put her in with no savings aside from the $200 in her pocket. “I woke up that first morning in the city, walked out onto the balcony of my room and felt as though I had the whole world at my feet,” she recalls. “It was, for me, the first morning of true physical freedom in my life.”
It didn’t take long for that initial moment of empowerment to be overwhelmed by a more troubling reality. Although de la Cruz had been disillusioned within the “family” for a long time before her exit, the group’s all-encompassing philosophy coupled with a lack of formal education and exposure to media and culture had left her unprepared for life in the outside world. “I got stuck on things like going for a medical checkup or opening a bank account. I was caught out in conversations for things everyone was expected to know,” de la Cruz says. “I had a lot of catching up to do just to appear normal to the world I now lived in.”
Escaping the clutches of a cult is rarely anything less than a fraught process, and the penalties for leaving can be severe. Paul Watkins, a member of Charles Manson’s homicidal “family,” ultimately testified against his former guru, and was nearly burned alive when the Volkswagen van he was sleeping in burst into flames one night (“family” members later took credit for the blaze).
For some, leaving voluntarily is almost impossible, as was the case with Brielle Decker, an ex-wife of Warren Jeffs, the jailed former leader of a polygamist Mormon sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In interviews, Decker has discussed being placed in solitary confinement and guarded by her brother, who had allegedly nailed the windows shut and inverted the doorknob. Decker claims she unscrewed the windows and fled barefoot to the house of a family that had also left the cult.
For others, it is the psychological toll of potentially abandoning an entire social circle that is the most daunting aspect — something screenwriter Paul Haggis addressed when he publicly went to war with the Church of Scientology, which he had been an active member of for 35 years. Haggis criticized the group’s policy of “disconnection,” in which members are required to cut ties with those who have denounced the religion, and accused it of homophobia, physical violence and the smearing of former members through the leaking of personal details. (When asked for comment, the Church of Scientology directed OZY to a public statement discrediting Haggis and denying his claims.)
But for every movie-plot-friendly defection, there are thousands of cult members who choose to exit in less explosive, but equally wrenching, circumstances. “When an individual is enmeshed in the sect’s thinking, thoughts of leaving … are likely to be met with resistance within one’s own mind, which can make leaving very difficult,” says Lois Kendall, author of Born and Raised in a Sect. “Groups may provide a sense of belonging, and therefore leaving any group to which you feel a sense of belonging can be difficult.”
Psychologists and former cult members agree that while the process of leaving a cult is monumentally tough in and of itself, adapting to life outside the cult can be equally demanding, if not more so. Some cults pursue defectors. The Church of Scientology is famously litigious, while former members of other movements have been stalked, harassed and bombarded with warnings of divine retribution and threats to their careers.
For many defectors, however, the most protracted battle is not with the cult, but with the long-term psychological damage it invariably inflicts.
“The ultimate abuse is that you have been subjugated for so long,” says Daniel Shaw, a New York–based author and psychotherapist who used to be heavily involved in the Siddha Yoga sect. “You are made to believe that as a person, you have no worth or value other than what the guru ascribes to you.”
This is a sentiment de la Cruz knows all too well, and one she battles with daily in her new life. A lot has changed for her since she left the cult — she enrolled in college and graduated with honors, and has been able to carve out a successful career in marketing and writing. But she is still coming to terms with her formative experiences and the task of building an identity outside the cult. “I can never go back to the only culture I grew up with,” she says. “But as far as I go from the cult, I often still feel like an outsider.”
Even so, she counts her life and independence as a potent rejection of the cult and its malignant influence. “I was raised and taught to be just one thing. The Family told me if I wasn’t that one thing, I would be miserable. Every day I succeed on my own terms, and every day I am happy, is a day I have proved the Family wrong.”
A History of Manipulation
A look back at the gruesome things that groups of individuals have been willing to do at the behest of a powerful leader.
Sci-fic writer L. Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology, coining the term “Suppressive Person,” or SP, to describe critics of the movement (the phrase is described in more detail on Scientology’s website). According to Arthur Goldwag, author of Cults, Conspiracies & Secret Societies, it’s a common tactic. “One of the things cult leaders do is convince you everyone is against you,” Goldwag says.
Reverend Sun Myung Moon started the Unification Church and maintained tight control of his followers, allegedly forbidding them to choose their own marriage partners and holding mass marriage ceremonies (claims the Unification Church denied in a statement to OZY).
Anne Hamilton-Byrne, leader of Australian cult the Family, allegedly persuaded followers (including a reported 28 children) to take LSD and other hallucinogens as part of an initiation ceremony.
Goldwag notes that cult leaders are good at spotting the most vulnerable, like abused children, and targeting them. Such was true for Charles Manson, who preyed mainly on women from broken homes, ultimately convincing some to murder nine people, including Sharon Tate (though convicted, Manson has denied he ordered the murders).
Reverend Jim Jones’ Guyana jungle compound, Jonestown, came to an end when he ordered 918 followers — including around 300 children — to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The event led to the coining of the term “drank the Kool-Aid.”
Erika Bertschinger, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who went by the name Uriella, created a religious movement in Switzerland called Fiat Lux. She told her followers that an alien spaceship would save them from the apocalypse, and allegedly persuaded many to hand over large sums of money to her. In 2000, Swiss courts ordered Bertschinger to pay back nearly $600,000 to a former member. “Some cults want your soul, some cults want your money,” notes Goldwag.
Massachusetts pimp Carl Drew was convicted for the murders of three women. Drew reportedly led a cult made up of prostitutes and drug addicts and told them he was Satan before leading them to commit human sacrifices in the forest.
Followers of the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh deliberately contaminated salad bars at 10 local restaurants with salmonella, poisoning 751 individuals, according to a report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rajneesh blamed his secretary for the attack, but was later deported to India, where he revived his ashram, which is still active today (Rajneesh died in 1990). Goldwag notes that Rajneesh’s teachings were a variation of those practiced by legitimate ashrams. “Some of the people involved in cults are nice people and genuinely spiritual,” he says, “but, if used by sociopaths, these techniques are dangerous.”
Roch “Moses” Thériault, leader of the Ant Hill Kids, confessed to being abusive with his followers, many of whom let him perform dangerous surgeries on them. Things came to a halt after Thériault amputated the arm of one follower, Gabrielle Lavallée, causing her to flee and contact the authorities.
In Quebec, Joseph Di Mambro — a co-founder of the Ordre du Temple Solaire (Order of the Solar Temple) — reportedly believed that the 3-month-old son of one of his followers was the Antichrist and ordered the infant’s murder. Soon after, several members in Quebec and Switzerland committed mass suicide (the bodies of some were discovered in an underground chapel, dressed in ceremonial robes).
Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo made headlines when its members staged an orchestrated attack on Tokyo’s subways and released sarin gas, killing 13 people and injuring roughly 5,000. The group’s founder, Shoko Asahara, was ultimately convicted for ordering the attack.
Rod Ferrell, 15, led a clique in rural Kentucky called the Vampire Clan. The group reportedly performed vampire rituals in the woods, including drinking one another’s blood. Things took a darker turn when Ferrell, aided by a few members from the group, killed the parents of his friend and fellow “vampire” Heather Wendorf.
Uganda witnessed one of the largest mass killings in modern times. According to the sole survivor, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God convinced followers that the end of the world was near, encouraging many to sell their property in anticipation. When the end didn’t arrive, several reportedly questioned the movement’s founder. Soon after, a fire at the cult’s headquarters killed 924 members.
In a series of trials that shocked Brazil, four doctors were convicted of sexually mutilating and murdering several boys between the ages of 12 and 17. The doctors reportedly were part of a satanic cult that used the victims’ sex organs in black magic rituals.
Australian company Kenja Communication made headlines when the family of former member Cornelia Rau accused the group of contributing to her mental illness. The group, which billed itself as offering “spiritual healing,” was founded by Ken Dyers and Jan Hamilton. Dyers committed suicide in 2007 after being charged with 22 sex offenses.
Warren Jeffs, the controversial president of the fringe Mormon sect the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was convicted of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin. The following year, Texas authorities seized more than 460 children from a compound owned by the church, claiming they were endangered and possibly abused.
Belarusian architect Pyotr Kuznetsov led a doomsday cult called the True Russian Orthodox Church. According to press reports at the time, Kuznetsov and 28 members sequestered themselves in a cave to await the apocalypse, resisting efforts by police officials to remove them for five months. When the last of the members left the cave, officials reportedly uncovered the graves of two women.
Former Papua New Guinea pastor, self-styled “Black Jesus” and cult leader Steven Tari met a gruesome end when local villagers hacked him to death with knives. The killing was reportedly in retaliation for Tari’s alleged ritualistic murder of a local 15-year-old schoolgirl.
Illustrations by Benedetto Cristofani