Something in me loves a TV show about cults.
You name the group, I’ve watched the documentary — Scientology, NXIVM, The Family, Heaven’s Gate, the Rajneeshees, Branch Davidians, the Moonies, The People’s Temple.
Why am I interested?
On the one hand, I guess it’s like any genre; it’s fun to look at similarities and differences within a category. And it’s interesting to learn the various archetypes — the charismatic leader; the scary lieutenant; the miserable, brainwashed member; the courageous, but persecuted apostate.
I also like to imagine myself in the position of those who got sucked in. Would the same have happened to me?
When watching these shows, I’m often struck by how intelligent, spiritually-oriented, and impressive some of these former cult members are. I’m sure there are dumb, obnoxious ones, too. I guess they don’t make it into the documentary.
I won’t bother listing my favorite TV shows, podcasts, and books about cults. The genre is getting too big for me to do it justice. Instead I’ll start with an excerpt from something I wrote last year.
A libel lawsuit dragged on for years. Even though Behar and Time ultimately “won” the case, the personal toll on Behar was significant.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, “when you’re sued for libel, and it goes on like that, it affects your career because you become a half-time defendant, so you can only be a half-time journalist. … That’s how you defeat a reporter, in a sense.”
The whole interview is worth listening to, but Behar describes one particular moment roughly 20 days into his deposition by Scientology lawyers. The lawyers began asking whether he knew L. Ron Hubbard’s theories about the developmental importance of events which take place in the immediate environment of a fetus, newborn, or young child.
Even in his exhaustion, Behar realized where the questions were going. Scientology investigators had uncovered painful facts about his childhood. Many years earlier, he had been removed from his home and declared a ward of New York State, due to child abuse.
Regarding the deposition — at that point 20 days long! — Behar said: “I was tired. Sometimes I had my head on the table, and they’re asking questions — nasty, nasty, nasty stuff sometimes. At a certain point, I just felt, ‘Come on, is that the best you can do? The more you are awful, the more I realize I’m so glad I did that piece. So keep coming. What else ya got?’
“I don’t know if they realized who they were dealing with because, again, going back to my childhood, and going back to who I am, you know, I’m not a snowflake, and if you’re gonna come after me like that … it just shows who you are.”
The courtroom moment reveals to Behar exactly how shitty and cruel his adversary is willing to be, but it also reveals to him — and us — his own strength and his rightness in having taken a hard, critical look at Scientology.
The Behar interview was from a podcast hosted by actress Leah Remini and former Scientology executive Mike Rinder, both of whom I put in the category of impressive people who joined cults.
You watch these shows about NXIVM or Scientology, and you see the whole arc of how cults evolve, how sinister and destructive they become. It’s easy to say, What moron would join that group? But I think that misses the point. When a person joins a cult, the arc hasn’t happened yet, at least not for the individual. She doesn’t have the advantage, in the moment, of the same comprehensive, journalistic understanding which we get as TV viewers.
A good example is Mark Vicente, a South African who rose to leadership in NXIVM. (The group is famous for having burned brands onto some members’ bodies.) In an HBO documentary, Vicente describes an early encounter with the organization and how it helped him solve a longstanding fear — highway driving.
Presto! The fear was gone. Vicente, an aspiring filmmaker, could now drive carefree on Los Angeles freeways.
If an organization had told me as a 20-year-old how I could solve my fear of public speaking — still a powerful fear, by the way — and if the group not only made the claim, but then delivered? Sure, I’d move to Oregon.
Or whatever god-forsaken place the cult called home.
You don’t even need a deep-seated anxiety to be vulnerable. On an A&E show about Scientology (also hosted by Remini and Rinder), we meet a former Moonie who describes getting broken up with in college. Around the same time he met three attractive young women in the cafeteria who began to flirt with him.
Moonies, all three of them.
That’s all it took. Three cute chicks, and the open, impressionable nature of the young man in question, Steven Hassan (who today writes and speaks about mind-control and deprogramming).
I’m not any smarter than Steve Hassan. I would’ve been just as vulnerable to the appeal of an all-knowing, all-explaining ideology. (Well, and to three young women paying attention to me.)
But cult stories do more than make me wonder whether I would have joined. They make me ask, What cult am I in right now?
That is, what belief system — official or unofficial, spoken or unspoken — am I following so rigidly and automatically that I don’t even realize it? This is the so-called ‘prison of belief,’ to borrow a phrase from journalist Lawrence Wright. This is why, for instance, sheriff’s deputies who are occasionally sent for ‘welfare checks’ on individual Scientologists in Hemet, Calif., are generally met by some version of, No problem here. I’m fine. Totally voluntary resident of this church facility which, sure, looks like a prison, but … I want to be here. I’m good. Tell my family not to worry.
Here are a few of my current cult memberships.
The cult of career. I serve this one mainly in the negative — that is, by not having a career but feeling shame or guilt about it. So although I serve the cult in the negative, I still serve it. The beliefs take up brain space. They shape decisions and my sense of self. They sap energy and joy.
The cult of veganism. I’m currently happy to serve this one, since it lines up with my interest in animals and their welfare. But I can at least imagine a day when my no-meat, no-dairy vows could turn into rigid, limiting, humorless rule-following. I hope not, but who knows? We’ll see.
The cult of caregiving. My 14-year-old dog died recently. And my two kids are about to leave for college. These two events challenge my sense of self. If I’m not taking care of kids or a dog, who am I? Sure, I can find other humans or animals to take care of. And yes, caregiving is a beautiful activity, fundamental to happiness and fulfillment. But it probably ought to be balanced with other activities. I tend to go overboard. And then I get cranky and resentful, especially toward the people I’m supposedly caring for. So yes, I’m a follower of this cult.
The cult of caring what others think. Lifetime, dues-paying member. I won’t be escaping this one anytime soon.
I’m sure there are other cults I belong to. What about the cult of being American? Or, in my case, the cult of being a white American male, or a Democrat, or a father or husband? Each of these identities has its own set of rules, many of which I probably don’t even agree with or believe in. But I follow them anyway, unconsciously. These rules are part of my identity. People generally don’t shed long-held identities willingly. (Unless there’s a warrant out for their arrest, of course.)
Sure, there’s a difference between being a helicopter parent and living on a farm with Ma Anand Sheela and her weaponized salmonella. I’m not saying my analogy is perfect. I’m just saying, if you shake your head at the suckers who signed up for cults, you’re missing out. There’s a valuable opportunity to look at yourself, too.
In the end, I come back to the bravery of those who joined cults, then left, and now tell their stories publicly. Scientology, in particular, makes life extraordinarily difficult not just for ex-members and journalists, but for their children, parents, and siblings. That is fucked up.
Yes, I can imagine joining a cult. Yes, I can imagine eventually breaking away. But I can’t imagine having the courage of Remini, Rinder, Hassan, Behar, and Vicente. They tell their stories — as painful or embarrassing as the stories may be — and they do so at great cost to themselves, in an effort to help others. That’s brave.