By Anna Winham
Six months out of college, I joined a cult. I worked 80 hours a week, slept four hours a night, and spent all my “free time” in New York City with my colleagues. I couldn’t afford to quit. I was paid solely on commission — and so little that my diet consisted exclusively of free bagels from the bodega, where the workers took pity on me but gave me the dignity of convincing me I had charmed them.
The company survived on a cycle of constant hiring. We continually recruited new hires under the guise of incredible opportunity. As a leader, it was my job to teach them how to sell 20 gift bags of makeup every day the way I did: talking to 200 strangers and memorizing a series of systems, from the “8 Steps to Success” to “4 Factors for Building Impulse” (which, frankly, I still use in my dating life). I taught these systems to others, who taught them to others, who taught them to others.
This was a multi-level marketing scheme, a third-party affiliate with an umbrella company that negotiates contracts with major cell phone companies, internet providers and sports leagues (for example) then hires independent businesses to avoid the liabilities of running a sales team of its own. Its name likely wouldn’t ring a bell; I didn’t learn it myself until I’d been working at the affiliate for months, and it changed twice during my stint there. Unlike more reputable companies, it purposefully eschews brand recognition to avoid an accumulation of bad press. Different branches of the company get their own name — to create the illusion of distance between them — and its inner workings remain obscure even to employees.
Without actually identifying the company itself, I’ll let you know that this kind of company is ubiquitous, even if shadowy and under frequent legal attack. In recent years, multiple multi-level marketing schemes have been sued for allegedly misclassifying employees to avoid paying minimum wage. Companies like these have even ensnared celebrities (among their ranks: Chris Pratt, of Parks and Recreation fame). Employee reviews on Glassdoor and Indeed for these kinds of operations vacillate from one-star ratings with simple descriptions like “cult/pyramid scheme” to love letters about the opportunity. During my time at one such operation, my boss ordered his employees to write glowing reviews like these.
Like every good cult leader, my boss also employed a specialized vernacular for the group’s social dynamics. Employees’ friends and family members were “outside influences.” Anyone who doubted the workplace’s strict regimen was a “neg-bomb.” Those who objected to the chronic sleep deprivation, his specific instructions for personal appearance, or the physical demands of carrying 30 pounds of product on their backs all day were labeled “weak.” Our job as leaders was to break them. To avoid wrongful termination lawsuits, we took these employees to whatever parts of town they’d feel least comfortable selling in until they quit: poor neighborhoods if they were from affluent suburbs, office buildings if they had blue collar backgrounds, or Chinatown if they didn’t speak Cantonese. We all suffered under this regime, but those of us who could commit fully to the company believed we were destined, eventually, for lives of free time, easy money, or both.
I’d recently graduated from Dartmouth, an elite university that purported to encourage “independence of thought” and promised to prepare its students “for a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership.” Despite my pedigree, I found myself eventually employed by not only one, but two high-control groups (a term that effectively means “cult-lite”).
It started in 2014, right after my college graduation, when I took a community organizer position at a program run by a nationwide organization of public advocacy groups with a well-documented history of worker exploitation and high-control practices. It regularly recruited from selective universities, including my alma mater. I knew Dartmouth alums who had worked at its sister programs, and felt perfectly comfortable following in their footsteps, especially for an opportunity to do what felt like such important work.
By the time I arrived in New York City, I was already used to 14-hour workdays, seven-day workweeks, and a salary that amounted to about half my home state’s minimum wage. I was used to social isolation, living with colleagues, and learning organizational ideology via “system” memorization. In short, I was perfectly comfortable in a highly-controlled information environment.
I eventually escaped both groups. And in the five years since, I’ve managed to avoid joining another cult. But I’ve maintained a (healthy?) interest in their trappings and strictures. For the cult-obsessed, there are limitless opportunities to indulge, from the classics (Jonestown, the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas) to the contemporary favorites (Scientology, Mormonism, even particular iterations of the Catholic Church). And that doesn’t begin to cover multi-level marketing companies (Herbalife, Amway, even Mary Kay) or the most recent internet conspiracy ideologies (Q-Anon and Pizzagate, Jeffrey Epstein, and The Family). And I find new cults all the time.
Recently, during an obligatory viewing of HBO’s The Vow, — a 2020 docuseries on the now-infamous sex cult NXIVM — my most “mainstream” friend took me by surprise when he said he believed he himself had been a member of, not one, but multiple high-control groups, including the notorious hedge fund he’d worked for straight out of college. It was, he realized, his college fraternity that prepared him for this lifestyle. There, his brothers enforced a rigid behavioural code and discouraged dissent. Members lived together and were encouraged to keep certain rituals secret from non-members. They learned the group’s ideology through psychological manipulation aided by sleep deprivation and drug use. That the Greek houses were high-control groups was the most open of secrets, barely shocking and hardly unusual. But it was, nonetheless, cultic.
There’s nothing new about cultishness. Throughout history, humans have felt compelled to trust persuasive individuals over reason, evidence, and direct personal experience.
In 1899, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, whose members believed that the martial arts they practiced made them impervious to bullets and other weapons, triggered China’s Boxer Rebellion. The Nahua death cults of Meso-America are remembered for their saint-focused practice and human sacrifice. And, at the turn of the 19th century, followers of Thug Behram robbed and murdered close to a thousand travellers in northern central India. Depending on how you look at it, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks were cultic groups, too.
In the United States, infamously destructive authoritarian cults like The People’s Temple, the Children of God, and the Unification Church get all the press, but many of the Europeans who first colonized North America hailed from cultish religious sects facing persecution across Europe. The Puritans fled to New England, where they “did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views,” writes historian Kenneth C. Davis. “Their ‘city upon a hill’ was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political.” Meanwhile, the Quakers settled the mid-Atlantic, while the Amish and the Menonites swept into the heartland. Uniquely American separatist movements, including the Mormons, the Shakers, and the Oneida community, sprang up.
These early sects set the stage for a culture where any American could easily normalize and even accept cults. Smallville actress Allison Mack was an integral part of NXIVM. Scientology is populated by Hollywood A-listers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The popular docuseries Tiger King clearly depicts a high-control group (Doc Antle’s T.I.G.E.R.S.), yet it’s one of the least-explored parts of the fast-paced show. Some critics believe that organizations within Amway together comprise the largest cultic groups in America, with almost 20,000 employees. Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, writes in his book Zero To One that every startup is a cult — or wants to be.
The UK-based Cult Information Centre defines a cult as exhibiting all five of these characteristics:
Use of psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members
Formation of an elitist totalitarian society
A self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, unaccountable, charismatic founder-leader
Belief that the end justifies the means in order to solicit funds and recruit people
Accumulation of wealth that does not benefit its members or society
By this standard, cults exist on a spectrum from a full-blown extremist group to a benign religion, an unusual family, an intense workplace, or even a nation. Margaret Thaler Singer, psychologist and author of Cults in Our Midst, estimates that in the last 20 years, 10 to 20 million Americans have been involved with cultic organizations. That’s almost 6 percent of the population. And no one is immune. Cults exist across the political spectrum: the notorious People’s Temple (of Jonestown infamy) promoted desegregation and racial harmony, while Q-Anon preaches the return of de jure white supremacy.
In its original usage, “cult” meant something much closer to “sect.” Its Latin root means to grow or care for something, as in horticulture, cultivate, and culture. Cultus meant devotion or worship. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t record a pejorative use of cult until 1977, according to psychologist and cult expert Janja Lalich. Colloquially, a “cult” meant a new sect of a religion or a new religion that practitioners of established religions labeled heretical, writes Anastasia Somerville-Wong, a humanist chaplain and history professor at the University of Exeter. But after Jonestown, it took on a darker meaning.
Today, some psychologists and sociologists suggest a pivot to the phrase “new religious movement.” While it lacks some of the baggage of “cult,” the term has its own limitations. What exactly counts as new? What is a religion? How many people constitute a movement? Lalich, for her part, recommends grouping non-religious organizations such as multi-level marketing firms, pseudo-therapeutic, and commercial groups into “alternative belief systems.” This paradigm acknowledges that the object of veneration can be anything: a person, an ideology, a deity, a vitamin.
It was only in the wake of 9/11 that researchers started to examine what made someone likely to join extremist groups like Al Qaeda.
“People assumed that these were poor people who were oppressed and hated Western nations because they thought they were oppressing Middle Eastern nations,” Ron Burks, psychologist, cult expert, and former cult member, told me. But the resulting research suggested otherwise.
“We realized these people were from privilege. These were college-educated, very smart people,” Burks said. “What was common was a little bit of idealism, a great deal of cynicism, and a desire to do something to change this —in their minds — crazy world.”
I certainly fit the bill. Idealist? Check. Privileged? Educated? Check. Check.
In my sophomore year of college, I was involved with a small organization, Students Stand with Staff. It mostly meant that I and the approximately four other radical queers on campus (plus one devoted straight white male Marxist) took actions in solidarity with the Service Employees International Union Local 560. By the spring of my junior year, I was also a part of massive student uprisings against the school’s lack of protection for students of color. By my senior year, the newly-minted Dartmouth Action Collective was interrupting MLK Day speeches, writing Freedom Budgets, and occupying the President’s office.
Needless to say, when I was looking for that first job out of college, the “grad school for activists” rhetoric of the first high-control group I joined appealed to me. There were red flags. I’d read INCITE’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded and I knew that the $24,500 salary was less than half what I could get at another non-profit I’d worked for as a fellow. But I was thrilled someone was going to pay me to do activism.
Three months in, I found myself working on a gun safety mission, sharing an apartment with the two other field organizers assigned to Las Vegas and working 14-hour days, seven-day weeks. We collected signatures on petitions, organized phone banks, and recruited local college students for progressive causes that contracted us for our labor. Sometimes it was fun (I enjoyed figuring out how to hop the fences of gated communities). Mostly, it was exhausting.
Despite the frantic schedule, I soon realized that managers were assigning people of color to knock on doors in white neighborhoods — and then forcing them to put in extra hours if and when they struggled to reach signature quotas. Residents weren’t opening their doors to my coworkers, but our bosses repeated that if we simply employed the “systems” (knock on 60 doors, 15 will open, 5 will sign), we’d get results. My own skewed numbers (60 doors, 30 opens, 20 signatures) were evidence of a discriminatory work environment.
Or, another time, a few of us were secretly organizing to unionize when our boss arrived for a surprise visit… and stayed on our couch. Only now, looking back, is it clear to me that our total lack of free time and personal space was not a cost-saving initiative; it was an attempt to keep us under strict observation.
Searching for freedom, I left the job and moved to New York in search of employment that would sustain me while I did my political activism outside my paid work. One day, I spoke with an independent business owner who appealed to my radical egalitarianism. He never went to college, but he ran his own company. He made his own hours and still earned enough to live comfortably. That’s what I wanted for everyone — and for myself. So, at just 21 years old, I joined my second high-control group, a multi-level marketing scheme.
A year before, I was finishing up an honors degree from a prestigious institution. I was double majoring in linguistics (with a focus on the anthropology of gender) and English (with a focus on colonial and postcolonial studies). One of my critical theory professors added my final paper to the class syllabus. I’m not sure how else I might indicate that I wasn’t dim (my SAT scores?) or especially suggestible (my thesis on the social scripts of madness?).
“That’s really where the problem is,” Burks says. “People assume that anyone who would fall for something like Q-Anon would have to be completely stupid.” It just goes to show, if I can be recruited to a cult — or two — you can, too.
Controlling groups do not typically advertise themselves as “cults.” Most people who join them “sleep-walk into them,” writes Somerville-Wong, “because they simply fail to notice the tell-tale signs or changes within their group that would indicate a serious problem.” Even in the most authoritarian or violent cults, many members don’t witness the darker side until they’ve been part of it for so long they might struggle to see the harm with clarity. And even if they do, they might already be too emotionally and materially invested in ways that make it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to leave.
Leah Remini is the celebrity poster child of cult recovery. Best known for her roles as Stacey Carosi in Saved by the Bell and Carrie Heffernan in King of Queens, she has also become one of the most outspoken critics and former members of Scientology. She hosted the Emmy-winning, three season Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath on A&E Networks, and now hosts I Heart Radio’s Scientology: Fair Game podcast. Both programs document and criticize the organization and its leadership.
Unlike some other celebrity Scientologists, Remini grew up in the organization. Her mother joined Scientology in the late 1970s when Remini was still a young child, moving the family from Brooklyn to what Remini has described as a roach-infested compound in Clearwater, Fla. There, they were forced to sign billion-year contracts with the church. Instead of receiving a formal education, Remini says she was put to work.
When Remini left in 2013, after years of deliberation, she claims she lost the ability to speak with friends and family members who remain in the church, including her goddaughter. Her sister Nicole, who’d left years earlier, claims the church forced Remini’s friends to choose between her and Scientology. Though Remini has been estranged from her father since her parents split when she was a child, the church convinced him to make a video denouncing her. Scientology “took my dad in as a pawn against me,” Remini told USA Today. She learned he died a month after his funeral.
Since her departure, Remini has become a forthright activist, speaking out against the physical, sexual, and psychological abuses she and others underwent in the church. In her writings, her TV series, and her podcast, she’s worked to expose the financial, social, and emotional ruin that Scientology has allegedly wrought upon her and others.
Despite persistent abuse, cults persist because they provide things people crave, like black-and-white answers to a gray world. This taps into an evolutionary need for mental shortcuts that allow our brains to process information and that have helped us survive for thousands of years. Today, we face a reality of dizzying complexity our brains are not meant to handle. It’s exhausting, being a critically-thinking member of society! Perhaps, even more exhausting than an 80-hour work week. So cultic ideology offers a solution.
“The thing that’s nice about it for a lot of people is that it’s very simple, cut-and-dry, us and them,” Burks says. “You don’t have to think.”
Historically, cults could limit outside information with physical means: living in isolated self-sustaining communities, keeping children out of public schools, restricting access to newspapers. Now, they can just as easily create their own information environments and media mills. Instead of sheltering their followers from mainstream media sources, cultish platforms can convert interested viewers into potential members with ever-more-extreme content, as journalist Kevin Roose has documented in his extensive research on YouTube radicalization among the alt-right.
Take QAnon. It lives on YouTube channels, Facebook groups, messaging boards, and Instagram wellness accounts. It not only stokes a high level of mistrust in mainstream media; it readily supplies alternative sources of information. That’s one reason why Steven Hassan, a former cult member turned cult psychologist, and author of The Cult of Trump, argues that Q-Anon is not merely a group of conspiracy theorists but a cult gone digital.
Q claims to write from within the U.S. government. Q has the highest security clearance. Whoever they are, they must be really brilliant, or how else would they be able to deliver these insights? Whether you believe it’s really Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, or some military cabal, Q seems to have all the answers. “It’s falsely empowering,” Burks says. “If you have a sense that you’re stuck in a humdrum life, now you’re on the front row seat, courtside, of the greatest show on earth.”
Q-Anon exhibits other cultic traits as well. Proselytizers use deception and manipulation to attract new members. They send new recruits messages with emotional triggers that hook them, indoctrinating them — dopamine rush by dopamine rush — into a new sense of reality. “Q-Anon uses online gaming techniques to entice people down an online rabbit hole, offering them a series of fantasy challenges with hidden code messages called ‘Qdrops’ that soon become addictive,” Hassan told me. Indeed, adherents to Q’s predictions — from soccer moms to Bernie Bros, recent immigrants and white men in red states — exhibit magical thinking, finding hidden messages from Q in every conceivable crevice.
While Q is “not the kind of person who set out to start a new religion or political party,” Burks claims, the ideology that Q creates is ripe for aspirational cult leaders. “There’s no doubt that the prophets, the people who receive the Qdrops, and put their spin on them on their websites, [are] the ones who are aspiring to become cult leaders,” Burks says. Which is to say: In the crowds that stormed the nation’s capitol in January, we saw not just one cult, but potentially dozens.
At the same time, Q-Anon is built on a distrust of elite power structures. Yet its members feel they are part of a special community, and their participation gives them a sense of belonging. Some, like Jason Blazakis, director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Insitute of International Studies, fear those running the Q show, whoever they are, will channel that energy into acts of domestic terrorism.
In a recent survey of Q-Anon devotees, Blazakis identified a growing sector focused on anti-abortion activism (a group with a record of explicit terror attacks in recent U.S. history against doctors and clinics that provide abortions). In 2020, the percentage of QAnon Facebook posts that were anti-abortion steadily increased from June 24 onwards, with a 12 percent increase in the second half of the year, according to the report. In February 2021, the volume of anti-abortion posts was up 58 percent compared to a year prior, Blazakis found. “I’m really concerned about those individuals,” he told me. “That’s a recipe for increased radicalization.”
But Blazakis fears for Q-Anon members, too. “I also worry about Q-Anon members themselves carrying out acts of self-harm because they’re despondent because the prophecies of Q don’t pan out.”
I can tell you firsthand: leaving a high-control group isn’t easy, but it's not impossible.
Many of the tactics that concerned loved ones naturally employ to try to “bring someone back” can actually have adverse effects. Condescension will likely entrench a cult member’s beliefs. Rational argument is ineffective. “It’s hard to see it for what it is when you are deeply enmeshed in it daily,” Florida-based psychiatrist Sean Paul says. “It helps to take some time away to gain some perspective.” In other words: emotional appeals still hold some sway.
The best way to encourage someone to safely disconnect from one of these groups is to try to reconnect them with family and loved ones, says Julian Lagoy, a psychiatrist whose research focuses on post-suicide attempt survival. He also recommends people maintain distance from other members of the high-control group, who will likely try to instill a sense of guilt and shame for leaving.
The process ideally involves a friend or family member engaging with the person in the cult, focusing on common interests and shared memories to remind them of who they were before they joined. Once they’ve fostered a sense of trust, they can begin to encourage doubt. Instead of pushing a line or rational argument, they should instead encourage their loved one to use their values as a guiding light away from the cult. Crucially, they need to provide the person somewhere that feels safe and stable to land.
This process is by no means foolproof, but so far, it’s our best bet.
I accidentally set myself up for the perfect de-radicalization situation. When my employer started selling for a company whose workers were on strike, I began to contemplate leaving. I knew my former self would never have crossed the picket line. I finally worked up the courage to quit — then joined my family on a two-week trip, sans cell service. Surrounded by family, and forced to reckon with my sister’s health issues, I saw clearly how I’d neglected what was really important to me.
There are intense neurological effects of joining a cult, including isolation, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. Participation in a cult can even lead to dissociative disorders, according to the American Psychiatric Association, “which are characterized by prolonged changes in, or conscious questioning of, their identity.” But the negative effects of leaving a cult can be just as great. “The risk of suicide and substance use is also increased, especially after someone leaves the group,” Lagoy says. “It’s at this point that they are most likely to feel guilt and shame.” Because cults have rewired their members' information systems through information control and stimulus bombardment, shattering that worldview and social structure can also lead to a sense of despair.
Deradicalization is a slow and uneven process. “On average, full habilitation took more than 16 months,” Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman reported in Science Digest about their 1982 survey of 400 cult leavers in the wake of the Jonestown massacre. “More than one in five respondents reported having suicidal or self destructive tendencies during this crucial time, and more than one in three sought professional follow up counseling or therapy.”
What does it say about us that there are so many cults? Or that practically anyone can end up in one?
The persistence of the cultish “reveals a flaw in our nature itself; a propensity to trust in the authority of certain persuasive individuals over reason, evidence and our own experience of reality,” Somerville-Wong writes. “Sometimes this trust or belief is not only due to ignorance or deception but an underlying preference for what the cult teaches over the truth.” Decades of behavioral science research indicates that when we want to hold a certain belief, we incorporate new evidence if it aligns with our worldview and discount it if it contradicts our worldview. We believe what we want to.
In this light, cults could be considered part of normal human behavior. We all contain the instinct to resist uncomfortable truths and yield to appealing lies.
Today, psychologists urge friends and family members to provide social support to compensate for the loss of cult membership. But it’s emotionally, psychologically, and financially exhausting to help a former cult member recover. The scope of the problem necessitates support on a societal scale. Ideally, it would also focus on prevention, as measures like universal mental healthcare and algorithms optimized for something other than profit might fortify us against the cultic’s natural allure .
After I left my cultish company, I went through a strange period I could only describe as an existential crisis. Friends a little older than me assured me that a quarter-life crisis a few years after college was perfectly normal. But I was nagged by the feeling that I’d wasted time as my peers progressed, obtaining degrees or living abroad or finding people to spend their lives with. I had so little to show beyond absurd stories about talking my way past security guards or hawking makeup in various consulates. As I applied to jobs, I wondered what I would put on my resume: Cult 1 and Cult 2?
Over time, I slowly returned to the activities that had once defined my sense of self. I hadn’t written in years. I hadn’t even read. I picked up books, protest signs, and relationships that had almost wasted away. Friends I’d lost touch with were overjoyed I’d returned, despite the damage I’d done. The night before one got married, she told me, on the verge of tears, she’d considered not inviting me to the wedding. When another friend’s dad died shortly before I quit, I saw how easily I might have been absent in their time of need.
Still, I tried my best to actually face the ups and downs, the sheer complexity, in every aspect of my life. It was the only way forward. Taking shortcuts is how we wound up with cults — and how I ended up in mine— in the first place.
Illustrations by Mariana Pelaez.
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