Are Cult Members Stupid? Are Cult Recruiters Evil? (Let’s Talk About Viruses Instead.)
I was speaking with the survivor of a high-demand group. They described having been recruited by a family within the group that had offered them a job.
In time, the requirements of the job began to blend with the requirements of the group. Within a few months, the subject found themselves thinking that they were somehow still in the job, but had also become intrinsic to the centre of the group. This felt both special and strange. Ultimately they went on to suffer abuse at the hands of the group’s leader, from which they’ve spent the rest of their lives recovering.
In essence, the person I was talking to described being deceived, which is cult tactic 101. She showed up for a job, was asked to begin to interact with the group as an implied condition of ongoing employment, and was told that the group’s leader would offer her enlightenment. It wasn’t true.
They asked me:
So do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in, and for those things to happen to me?
I could hear the tenderness of the question. Behind it was the terrible thought that perhaps this family, with whom they had bonded, had purposefully and callously betrayed her.
This was a question about evil.
I offered that neither of us could have a real clinical insight into the family. Even if we did, I said, it wouldn’t resolve the question of their intentions. We can never fully say why people do things, or whether they’re doing things in good faith, or with full agency.
I always find it easier, I said, to focus on impacts.
But the feeling of the subject’s question twigged something inside me.
There was a horror to it, a shame, a sense of claustrophobia. And contagion.
Can people really be so awful?
These are all feelings that also exude from the more common question that survivors ask. This would be the self-accusatory question: “How did I fall for that?” Or, “How could I have been so stupid?”
The self-accusatory questions show the internalization of the victim-blaming that fuels the wider culture. Which, in its most domesticated state, serves as the basic logic of neoliberalism.
It touches the root of a primal shame: Why did I deserve that?
Self-blame is bolstered by various legal, economic, and journalistic conventions that don’t have the tools (and perhaps don’t want them) to investigate the difference between consent and informed consent, or situations of trauma in which the fold response can broadcast false consent.
The things you said yes to because saying yes was safer than saying no.
Okay. So when this feeling of shame comes over the ex high-demand group member, here are two facts that cannot be denied:
1) They didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves to be lied to and abused.
2) There are no predictors for why they got drawn in. There is no research to suggest there’s a particular “vulnerable type” who is more prone to recruitment. Nothing protects a person against deception. It doesn’t matter if you had an abusive childhood. (That wouldn’t be your fault either.) There are many people who have had abusive childhoods don’t wind up in cults.
Having wound up in a cult can feel like a personal failing. But it’s not. It’s more like having been infected by a virus.
According to Stein’s model of cult-as-disorganized-attachment-machine, part of the infected member’s condition is to believe that the source of the sickness is also the cure.
So let’s bring this back to the subject’s question: “Do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in?”
That first, pragmatic answer still holds true: there’s no way of knowing.
But can we say anything else — something that sounds a little less like a shrug — to relieve the burden of having to ponder a terrible betrayal?
If we use the virus metaphor, perhaps we say that the subject got hired into a contagious environment. Perhaps the family didn’t even know they were infected. They were part of the group, after all, because they too, at some point, had been deceived.
The main difference between the subject and the family that hired her may have been that the family had incubated the group virus for long enough that they themselves were contagious in their daily actions. They may not even have recognized they are symptomatic.
My point is: wondering whether recruiters are evil shares space with the victim-blaming impulse. Both depend on the premise that personal agency — and therefore, the capacity for informed consent — remains intact in relation to a cult, even though the cult runs on deception. Both depend on the premise that personal choices are the prime movers of cultic involvement and action, rather than a kind of social contagion.
A good metaphor gives us space for working on the questions of the heart. But as much as cult-as-virus idea might relieve the survivor of self-blame — and, if they want to go there, the traumatic conviction that they were betrayed — it has a hard limit. A virus does not excuse criminal activity.
And, as an amorphic, amoral, depersonalized thing, the virus shares characteristics with the chaotic and naturalistic forces of “karma”, by which criminality has so often escaped scrutiny and accountability in yoga and Buddhism groups.
But if we don’t take it too far, there’s another reason to like the metaphor. It might let us think of cult awareness education as a kind of vaccination programme.
Reading a good cult analysis book is actually a lot like getting a sharp pinch in the arm. (Here’s an amazing bibliography.) It stings, burns, maybe swells a bit. You know the vaccine contains tiny bits of the virus itself, suspended inertly in the medium.
Every good cult book I know has been written by someone who had to develop their own antibodies.
So: a few regular, highly-researched shots in the arm. It should be enough arms to offer herd immunity to those who don’t have access to the information. It’ll be good to keep up to date, and pay the experts to watch for mutations.
Great article. One thing I’ve found is that recovering from the experience seems to come in waves of freedom. So I can feel free of it some days (or weeks) and then there will be a day where it seems like I’m just back there again. In those moments reading and studying about the dynamics these groups use can really help.
Not sure why it’s not on that list but Janja Lalich’s “Take back your life” is my go-to text.
Matthew, I am enjoying your articles on cult mentality and trauma and noticing that your writing seems simpler than before but no less powerful. I am curious about this, and wonder if it is related to how close the materiel is to you, which may lend itself to a more basic and clear expression in contrast to the more complex structure and vocabulary that characterize more academic writing. I am enjoying the shift and find myself more willing to read all the way through the piece. Thanks for your clear thought and expression and impact on my thinking around these important issues.