The Prey of Cults

October 1998
by Perry DeAngelis

It is estimated that between two and five million Americans are involved in cultic groups (Singer,1995).  It is hard to assess a more accurate count because, as in all things, cultic groups are deceptive about their numbers.  Deception is their hallmark, used at every level from recruitment, to thought control, to contact with the outside.  It is their very life’s blood and the primary attribute that marks them as distinct from mainstream, and non-destructive groups.

In this first of a two-part article, we will give a brief overview of cults, and then discuss recruitment and initial adherence to such groups.  Part two will discuss leaving a cult and the aftermath, as well as how we can deal with such groups in the future.

What is a Cult?

In the early Bronze Age when people were settling themselves into temple-centered urban environments, there arose amongst them, in response to natural disasters, priest-kings.  Others gave to these charismatic potentates provisions to sustain them, while they carried out ever more complicated blood sacrifices.  Thus were the first leaders and the first commoners born (Heinsohn, 1998).  From this grisly womb modern day cults have emerged, and their destructive nature has not changed in 4000 years.

Due to the large variety of modern cults, and their vastly differing control and manipulation mechanisms, it is difficult to give an all-inclusive one-sentence definition of a cult.  Following is a list into which most cults can be classified (Singer, 1995):

Neo-Christian religious
Hindu and Eastern religion
Occult, witchcraft, satanist
Zen and other Sino-Japanese philosophical-mystical orientation
UFO/outer-space phenomena
Psychological or psychotherapeutic
Self-help, self-improvement, life-style systems

The primary reason these groups exist is to utterly control its membership so as to venerate its special “needs.”  They seek to remove from their membership the ability to think critically and make life decisions.  They retrain the victim to think in their own highly defined and constricting manner, so that they become a pawn to the will of the leader.  This process is not accomplished through argument or force as is often thought, but rather with subtle persuasion, flattery, guilt, and always, deception.

Robert Lifton defined five tried and true methods destructive groups use to ensnare and keep their flocks corralled (Lifton, 1989).

1) Totalism – This is an us against them philosophy, which is used to achieve complete separation from the past, which is portrayed as filled with the satanic or unenlightened.
2) Environmental Control – Everything that perspective recruits see, eat, and do every waking minute is carefully manipulated.
3) Loading the Language – This is the jargon of the cult, which take the form of quick easy phrases and statements that only have meaning to the cultists.  Such jargon encourages isolationism and cloning.
4) Demand for Purity – All actions are judged by the cult’s definition of purity, which is crafted by the leadership to suit their needs.  Such definitions are applied in an absolute, black and white, manner. Anything is acceptable in the pursuit of this purity.
5) Mystical Leadership – The cult leader endows himself with a mystical mantle, often an agent of divine powers on Earth. Confession and denunciation to the leader are ingrained. The victim acquires a pawn-like attitude, wherein devotion and obedience to the leader supersede standards of morality or self-preservation, even unto choices of life and death.

The more obvious and pervasive  the above philosophies are in a group, the more adherent the group will be to ideological totalism, and the more it will use these devices to corrupt an individual’s will, making the group more of a cult. There is no clear line separating cults from non-cults.  Rather, ideological groups exist on a spectrum from very benign to completely destructive, even fatal.   There is no clear answer to the question of how many traits, and to what degree, are necessary for a group to qualify as a cult, and judgements should be made on an individual basis.  The remainder of this article, however, will deal with those groups that clearly fall into the cult end of this continuum.

There is one characteristic, however, that all true cults seem to share, and that is the deliberate use of deception. The details of their belief system are revealed to recruits only in stages, calculated to draw them in, step by step, without scaring them off up front. You have to reach the inner circle (level 5) of Scientology, for example, before you learn that we are all allegedly possessed by the banished spirits of alien beings, and that this is the true cause of human suffering. Mainstream beliefs, rather, are completely up front with their beliefs and make no attempt to conceal them.

How Cults Recruit

Historically, cults have thrived during times of societal vulnerability.  When people are at a loss to make sense of the rapid changes around them, and are forced to rethink much of what they once held as true, they are fertile ground for cult membership.

For example, after the fall of Rome, or during the French and Industrial Revolutions, cults sprang up in there-to-fore unprecedented numbers.  The siren song of the recruiters promising to wash away the fear and uncertainty of the time was simply too alluring for many to deny, and the cults bulged.  In our modern age, the fall of the Soviet Union has left many in Eastern Europe lost and alienated, and cults are swarming there to harvest in this sea of confusion.  The black and white philosophies of the cults are much easier to digest than the complex and dynamically changing society.

Cults recruit people from all socioeconomic strata, and of all ages.  In the past it is true that most people who joined cults were in their late teens and twenties, a time when many of us are rebellious by nature.  It was the counter-culture aspects of these groups that was intoxicating and many joined to find a new freedom, only to discover they had found a more confining prison than ever before.  Some cult apologists utilize these youths to claim that these groups are not bad because these young people are “seekers,” people seeking answers to grand questions.  This is wholly untrue.  Cult recruitment reaches out with malign intent and traps its victims with deception.  The true nature of the group is never ever discussed up front.  One cannot join a group to aid them in their “search” if they do not know what the group is actually about.  Yet, nowadays, cults recruit all ages and in fact actively seek out older people who have accumulated estates that can be willed to the group.

Two main aspects seem to be predominant in making a person vulnerable to cult recruitment.  The first is that they are between substantial life affiliations.  These are times such as between college and a job, traveling for an extended period, arriving at a new location, recently rejected, fired, or divorced.  Any time that a person does not have a compelling connection in their life, they are extremely vulnerable to the seeming familial-ness of cultic recruitment.  The second aspect is that of depression.  A person suffering from depression that is not completely debilitating, is very malleable and easily soothed by the honey coating of cultic deception.  These groups seem to offer nearly instant, often simplistic and focused, solutions to the myriad of problems daunting us.  In the Psychiatric Times, Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., put forth the following list of aspects that are most often present in those who succumb to cultic enticements;

A high level of stress or dissatisfaction
Lack of self-confidence
Desire to belong to a group
Low tolerance for ambiguity
Naive idealism
Cultural disillusionment
Frustrated spiritual searching
Susceptibility to trance-like states

It is these very weaknesses that the packs of recruiters seek out like blood in the water.  Recruiters for these groups are trained to spot such susceptible people, and know well the signs of such vulnerabilities.  When they strike up a conversation with these marks, they continue this process of “cold reading” (See TCS Vol Iss. ) the victim.  They are able to assess the individual’s needs very rapidly, and will mold their speak to salve those needs.  To a person suffering from anxiety and want of affiliation and affection, these bright soothing words from a stranger whose only motivation is seemingly to help, are monumentally persuasive.  Even the physical method of the first contact with a mark is described in detail in many cults’ instructional manuals.  They tell in what posture and distance to sit from a mark, so as to not be too threatening, yet maintaining control of the conversation.  Keeping direct eye contact is emphasized.

In a Children of God manual, it states, “Let the Holy Spirit work through you.”  In this case, the eye to eye contact is referred to in the manual as, “…letting the Light of Jesus come through your eyes into the other person’s eyes.”

The Recruiters are often skilled at displaying empathy for their marks, so as to make themselves seem similar to their marks.  If the recruit is a laborer, for example, then the recruiter will discuss his alleged time in some grueling labor-intensive employ. In contrast, if the mark is a writer, the recruiter will passionately speak about the difficulty of writing and being rejected by publishers.  This is a highly intelligent practice, and speaks directly to the insidious nature of destructive cults.  Yet it must also be mentioned that many are persuaded into cults by people they know.  In a recent survey of 381 former cult members, 66% said that their initial contact came via friends or family.

In Their Clutches

After this initial contact the victim is prepared for the invitation.  The invitation is a crucial part of the recruitment process, for it is the first time that the victim will be out of their own familiar world, and enter into the nebulous world of the cult.  This could be an invitation to a dinner, a lecture, a seminar, a volleyball game, etc.  Anything that the recruiter believes the victim will acquiesce to after the initial assessment.  This get together can be almost anywhere, a restaurant or beach, for example.  What the victim will usually find at this first gathering is the cult’s “front group.”

A front group is simply a cadre of select individuals from within the cult that act as a mask for the cult’s real agenda.  Often cults will have several different front groups that can appeal to a wide variety of interests and needs.  At this initial meeting the victim is swarmed over by the front group as affection and attention are lavished.  The primary purpose of this action is to get the recruit to agree to a longer-term commitment at the cult’s facility, for say a three day weekend, which they will quickly turn into a full week and beyond.

Getting the victim to accept an invitation to the cult’s facility is the second crucial step for the cult.  For once therein, the actual separation from the outside world is effectuated.  Here the process of thought reform begins in earnest.  The recruit is surrounded by veteran members of the cult that sing its praises ceaselessly, chiming on and on about the inherent strength of whatever new belief system is being advocated.  The leader is praised without end as his uniqueness is revealed and he is claimed to be the savior of mankind via whatever method he has chosen; i.e. revealed knowledge, perfect social paradigms, ancient or alien wisdom etc.  The fact that there is little or no objective evidence to support these claims is glossed over with the group’s jargon.  Again, the recruit feels that he is somehow not as “good” as the other members because he does not understand the specific language and nonsense words of the cult.  Only through a parroting of such, does he get approval.

These veteran cult members begin immediately to direct the recruit’s actions, keeping their time carefully filled with meetings, exercise, reading cult propaganda, chanting, and whatever else the particular cult has found that will occupy the recruit’s thinking time.  This oppressive atmosphere does not allow for reflection and negative feelings, and questions are suppressed, as these are only the victim’s old unclean ways trying to surface.  All connection with the past is attacked.  The recruit’s family and friends are painted as unenlightened and need to be shunned until they too have seen the way.  Victims are made to feel that they too were bad in their old lives and this guilt is reinforced by the denunciation of the past.  This guilt that is ensconced after the initial waves of love that the group showered on the recruit is very confusing and causes much anxiety.  Recruits are never allowed to speak with other recruits who might share their initial doubts and hesitations.  They are made to believe that if they have doubts they are the only ones and should be ashamed of them.  Their critical faculties are derided at every turn.

All of the above is carefully blended with a program of controlling the recruit physiologically. They are often kept so busy by the cult that they become sleep deprived.  Members can be made to hyperventilate by loud repetitive chanting.  This causes there to be too little carbon dioxide in the blood, causing it to become too alkaline and leading to respiratory alkalosis.  This in turn makes the victim light- headed and woozy, further declining their critical processes.  Special and restrictive diets are enforced to make the recruit weak and uncomfortable.  Sometimes cults load their members up on sugar to give them an artificial high so the cult’s activities and propaganda will temporarily excite them.  Stories are told of leaders passing out hoards of candy bars during long sessions of speeches and teachings.  Purging and colonics are used as well as dehydration, all to make the subject more confused, disoriented, and dependent.  In one group, the Divine Light Mission, the leader would dim the lights, then go around to the members and press on their eyeballs until the pressure on their optic nerves caused a flash of light to be perceived.  The leader claimed that this was divine light, caused by his ministrations.

Even the recruit’s appearance is often altered to suit the cult’s standards.  This can be anything from a special uniform, to cutting ones hair a certain way, to constantly wearing cult paraphernalia.  Changing a person’s long held appearance can have a profound effect on their sense of continuity, and makes them feel more than ever that they have begun an entirely new life.  The recruits are even sometime required to take on new names.

This pattern of “antagonism, apathy, and acceptance,” is classic in cultic groups. The antagonism is any resistance that the victim might have to the indoctrination process when first inducted.  This is quickly quelled via the above described methodology, and the recruit moves into the apathy stage.  The knowledge that it would simply be easier to just go with the flow, drop any excoriated resistance that they may have had, and just fall into the pillowy conformity of the encompassing group –  which of course leads directly to acceptance and the final attenuation of individuality and self-preservation.

We have discussed the various methods by which cults trap their victims for their own nefarious purposes.  Yet, with all this allied against them, in the next article we will see that people can emerge from these totalist groups to once again be productive self-reliant members of society.

Emerging from a Cult

The experience of coming out of a cult is much more difficult than entering one.  On the way in all is sugar and light.  The courting process has just begun and you are still feeling that the cult is enhancing your personality.  It is only during the exiting process that you learn the cult has in fact stolen it.  The damaging methods a cult uses to beguile members leaves mental wounds in the former member that often take years to heal.  The reduction of one’s will to resist and the degradation of one’s critical faculties make the transition back to freedom very difficult.

There are several key characteristics that accompany almost all ex-cult members:

Fear is a ubiquitous concern of ex-cult members.  Many cults use all sorts of fear to maintain loyalty to the group.  Everything from denunciation, to claims of damnation, to physical force has been used to both retain and return members.  Ex-members are often encouraged, if not forced, to change locations, telephone numbers and even their names to escape the harassment of their former groups.  Of course, this fear is always much more acute when a family member, particularly a child, is left in the group.  The group can threaten the child with sanctions unless the member returns, and at the very least almost always severs all contact with the “traitor.”

Another after-effect that ex-cult members must deal with is “flashback.”  Not unlike “shellshock,” (wherein combat veterans react with inappropriate motion and fear to any loud noise), ex-cult members will sometimes find themselves wandering back to the trance-like state they were ensconced in during their cultic days.  These times of “floating” are triggered by stress, deep depressions, or when the cult’s jargon is heard even in completely unrelated contexts.  These flashbacks decrease in frequency over time, but can last for months. (Singer, 1995)

The attack on one’s mentality when in a cult leaves the victim’s cognitive skills dulled.  It takes time to retrain one’s mind to evaluate and perceive in “real time.”  The outside world is a busy and complex place.  The empty simplicity of the cultic core is gone, and the sensory input can sometimes be daunting to one who has languished in trance-like obedience for an extended period of time.  For this reason, tasks should be attempted in ascending level of difficulty and complexity, as one would when training to do these things for the first time.

Many ex-members report that they are often consumed with guilt, a guilt which may take many forms.  When within the cult, members are often forced to perform illegal activities,   learning to con, trick and steal from others.  They compel donations in a variety of dishonest and coercive manners.  They expel personal morality to the will of the cult and this leaves them deeply ashamed.  They are uncertain how they can face up to these actions, and how they can repay those they themselves victimized.  Further, ex-members may feel very troubled about close friends and family members that were left behind in the cult.  This makes the dismissal of the cult very difficult.  When their feelings for those still within the cult call to them most strongly, they may even begin to get doubts about leaving the cult.  Maybe it was they who failed, and not the cult or the loved ones still within.  How can it be so totally wrong if my wife still adheres relentlessly to the teachings?  Could the leader have been right?  This miasma of doubt and confusion can be debilitating and slow recovery to a crawl.  Finally, ex-members must come to face those that they severed in the outside world when they were absorbed by the cult.  How can they ever hope to explain to them what it took to make them sever all ties, and indeed, to deride them?  When faced with the love and concern that loved ones maintained for them even when they were chanting of their evils at the leader’s behest, the look in the mirror can be shattering.

This shame leads directly into another very real problem faced by ex-cult members – the continual bombardment of questions, and the obligation to explain to everyone.  It is exceptionally difficult to explain to those never victimized by a recruiter and thence a cult about the subtleties of manipulation and coercion that ensnared them.  To describe the charisma of the leader in full spread and the atmosphere of euphoria that the combined manipulation of the cult could cause is all but impossible to those not initiated into the psychology of totalistic groups.  It leaves ex-cult members feeling as if no one on the outside understands what they went through and makes them feel pitied.  Further, family and friends often put the emerged under a microscope, watching for any signs of weakness that may be indications that the ex-member may again become the mark of the old, or even a new, group. This situation often leads to encounters where both the watchers and the watched sense an air of concern, but fail to communicate it effectively.  Tensions can quickly rise under such circumstances and the ex-members sense of self-worth can be eroded by the perceived feeling that loved ones do not believe they can care for themselves properly.

The entire sense of self that was so artificially inflated at times in the cult must be reassessed in a realistic state.  No longer can the person consider themselves the “chosen.”  In the cult they may have been the “saviors of mankind,” or the “sources of eternal light and reason,” all of which must be let go.   They are suddenly just like everyone else; still searching, still struggling, and still hoping.  They are left feeling that perhaps they are not only not chosen, but that they are valueless.  They have very difficult times learning to trust again.  Fear of being victimized again can make them cynical and distant.  The question of how they can join any other group and not be corrupted again is an ever-present one. (Lifton, 1989)

Helping Victims Cope

The primary way one can help an ex-cult member reemerge as a healthy person, is through understanding – understanding their plight and helping them to understand what happened to them.  It must be explained to them with firm compassion that they were the victims of a time tested cohesive and insidious set of manipulations that have ensnared countless millions.  They must be made to see how and why they were ensnared, and given the tools to avoid it in the future.
What follows is a list of questions that have been found to be helpful when worked through with ex-cult members.  They are excerpted from  “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships” by Madeleine Tobias and Janja Lalich. (Tobias, 1994)

Reviewing their recruitment:
1. What was going on in your life at the time you joined the group or met the person who became your abusive partner?
2. How and where were you approached?
3. What was your initial reaction to or feeling about the leader or group?
4. What first interested you in the group or leader?
5. How were you misled during recruitment?
6. What did the group or leader promise you? Did you ever get it?
7. What didn’t they tell you that might have influenced you not to join had you known?
8. Why did the group or leader want you?

Understanding the psychological manipulation used in the group:
1. Which controlling techniques were used by your group or leader: chanting, meditation, sleep deprivation, isolation, drugs, hypnosis, criticism, fear. List each technique and how it served the group’s purpose.
2. What was the most effective? the least effective?
3. What technique are you still using that is hard to give up? Are you able to see any effects on you when you
practice these?
4. What are the group’s beliefs and values? How did they come to be your beliefs and values?

Examining their doubts
1. What are your doubts about the group or leader now?
2. Do you still believe the group or leader has all or some of the answers?
3. Are you still afraid to encounter your leader or group members on the street?
4. Do you ever think of going back? What is going on in your mind when this happens?
5. Do you believe your group or leader has any supernatural or spiritual power to harm you in any way?
6. Do you believe you are cursed by God for having left the group?

The above questions will help the victim understand the mechanisms that enslaved them and allow them to talk openly about their fears, both past and current. Once the victim begins to see themselves as a victim and appreciates the need to avoid such in the future, the rebuilding and reawakening process of their atrophied critical faculties can begin in earnest.

The ex-member must be reoriented to “reality.”  This process can be accomplished by simple tasks that help them to rebuild a fulfilling connection with the outside world.  Anything that might bewilder or entrance must be meticulously avoided.  No drugs or alcohol should be consumed during this tenuous time.  Anything that might cause a state of sensory overload should be avoided (loud music, crowds, a large urban environment, etc).  The maintenance of routines in the early recovery stages are a good idea.  Making checklists of activities and following the schedule is important, as is planning out purchases and projects well beforehand.  The reorientation to reality can be accomplished by keeping apprised of current events, via newspapers, television news and talk shows, and talk radio.  It has been suggested that using a timer and increasing reading periods progressively can increase reading “stamina.” (Patrick, 1999)

When all of the above are coupled with the love of friends and family, anyone emerging from a totalistic group can once again join the ranks of the free willed.  Membership in a cult may be a dark chapter in one’s life, but it need not be the entire story.


1) Singer, Margaret T.  Cults in Our Midst.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.
2) Appel, Willa.  Cults in America: Programmed for Paradise.  New York, NY:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.
3) MacCollam, Joel, A.  Carnival of Souls: Religious Cults and Young People.  New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1979.
4) Lifton, Robert Jay, M.D.  Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. The University of North Carolina Press / Chapel Hill and London, 1961, r1989.
5) Novella, Robert. Cold Reading. The Connecticut Skeptic vol. 2 issue 2 (Spring 1997), pg 3
6) Heinsohn, Gunnar., 1998
7) Langone, Michael D., 1998
8) Singer, Margaret T.  Cults in Our Midst.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.
9) Lifton, Robert, Jay, M.D.  Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.  The University of North Carolina Press / Chapel Hill and London, 1961, r1989.
10) Tobias,  Madeleine and Lalich, Janja. Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships.  New York, NY: Hunter House Publishers, 1994.
11) Ryan, Patrick L.  Coping With Trance States: The Aftermath of Leaving a Cult,, January 1999