Posts Tagged ‘Jonestown’



Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? )

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20. Possessiveness. For financial and other reasons, cults will often go to great, sometimes illegal, lengths to retain members. The most extreme example of this tendency was provided by the People’s Temple Jonestown gulag, where members were physically prevented from leaving by Jim Jones’ heavily armed good squad.

Less sinister examples are provided by the Mormons and Scientologists. When a Mormon leaves the fold, the LDS Church never gives up its attempts to recover its lost sheep. It will trakc the apostate for decades, and it’s not unusual for LDS representatives to contact former members 30  or 40 years after they left the church in an effort to talk them into rejoining.

Similarly, the Church of Scientology apparently tracks its former members for decades and barrages them with promotional/recruitment materials. One former administrator at the Celebrity Center (who has never gone public) told me that more than three decades and moving ten times after she “blew,”  the Scientologists still inundate her mailbox with glossy church promo materials.

21. A Closed, All-Encompassing Environment. Again, the classic example of this is Jonestown. A more current example are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) settlements in the geographically very isolated cities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. These nearly 100% FLDS settlements, whose “prophet” is imprisoned child rapist Warren Jeffs,  sit across the Arizona/Utah border from each other, and church elders routinely follow any “gentiles” driving through the towns and  go to lengths to “shield” members from the “corrupting” influence of television and the Internet.

But there’s nothing unusual in all this. Almost  all cults attempt to provide a closed environment for at least some of their key members, and some attempt to provide it for all of their members. The less contact that members have with external reality, the more natural the hothouse atmosphere of the cult seems, the more natural the the very peculiar beliefs of the cult seem, and the more natural it seems that everyone should follow the orders of the charismatic leader or the controlling hierarchy. A closed all-encompassing environment also makes members totally dependent upon the cult for social support, economic support, and a sense of identity; and this tends to make leaving the cult a terrifying prospect. To put it another way, cults are like anaerobic bacteria–they thrive in the absence of cleansing breezes.

22. Millenarianism. Many cults, especially Christian fundamentalist cults, prophesy that the world is coming to an end. One of the most prominent millenarian cults, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), is, however, secular in nature. Rather than prophesying a biblical Armageddon, the RCP in the 1980s and 1990s prophesied a nuclear Armageddon unless, of course, it achieved power. And at least they had the good sense, unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to  announce a doomsday date. (Of late, they seem to have toned down their rhetoric a bit; a brief perusal of their web site revealed no apocalyptic predictions, just an exhortation to readers to join the RCP and become “emancipators of humanity.”)

Millenarianism also provides a powerful insight into the hold of cults over their followers. As mentioned above, some cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have had the bad judgment to prophesy the date of doomsday, yet almost all such cults have managed to retain a majority of their blindly believing followers despite their failed predictions.  The Witnesses had predicted in the 1980s  that doomsday would arrive with the new millennium. But, having been burned many times by their false predictions, they backed away from that particular one.  So, Witness faithful no longer have a year-specified doomsday to look forward to. They simply have the assurance that doomsday is coming soon.

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 



Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?)

* * *

 

13. A Charismatic Leader. Present in almost all cults, the leader can be living (Revolutionary Communist Party, FLDS, Larouchites) or dead (Synanon, Scientology, Unification Church). In cases where the leader dies, the cult either fades away (The Source, Synanon), is taken over by a direct relation of the deceased charismatic leader (Unification Church), or is taken over by a member of a pre-existing hierarchy (Scientology).

14. A Hierarchical, Authoritarian Structure. While this is a very common feature of cults, it should be noted that relatively new cults often have little structure. But as time passes, hierarchy and bureaucracy usually arise, as is to be expected in authoritarian setups. If a hierarchy does not arise–this sometimes happens because of the charismatic leader’s fear of take-over attempts–the cult will probably disintegrate upon the leader’s death, unless a new charismatic leader quickly arises to take his or her place.

15. Submission of the Individual to the “Will of God” or to some other abstraction, such as the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This means abandonment of individual decision making in favor of obeying the “will” of the abstraction as interpreted by the cult. In practice, this means obeying the orders of the charismatic leader or the hierarchy which controls the group.

One outward sign of individual submission to the charismatic leader is the infantilization of members. In many instances, the People’s Temple and Unification Church being examples, members very often refer to and address the leader as “Father.” (In the relatively few cults with charismatic female leaders, such as the Church Universal and Triumphant, members often refer to the cult leader as “Mother.”)

In many cults the submission of the individual is so complete that the charismatic leader and/or hierarchy make all significant life decisions for the individual, up to and including choice of sex and marriage partners. In Synanon, the control of its founder, Charles Dederich, was so complete that he forced all of the male members of his cult, save himself, to undergo vasectomies. He later forced all members to switch sex partners. The leader in “The Source” cult, “Father Yod” also assigned new sex partners to members. And in the Unification Church, the hierarchy picks the marriage partners of members. In that church, it’s common for brides and grooms to meet for the first time at their weddings.

But perhaps the ultimate expressions of the submission of the individual to the “will of God” (that is, the cult) are mass murder, mass suicide. and self-mutilation. The prime example of mass murder and suicide is, of course, Jonestown. The Order of the Solar Temple provided more recent, though smaller scale, examples of such murder and suicide.

As for self-mutilation, the most memorable example was provided by the Heaven’s Gate cult. In it, a majority of the male members of that severely anti-sexual religious group–in order to remove themselves from temptations of the flesh–“voluntarily” submitted to castration prior to the cult’s mass suicide in 1997, in order to somehow join the (of course nonexistent) UFO that cult leader Marshall Applewhite said was in Comet Hale-Bopp’s tail.

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)

 

 



Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front cover
(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? )

* * *

8. Special Knowledge. This is closely related to the concept of exclusivity. Many cults claim that they are the route to personal and/or social salvation, because they hold special, extremely valuable knowledge that’s unavailable to the uninitiated. As well, many cults only gradually reveal that “knowledge” to members in order to avoid early defections. (A great deal of this “knowledge” is so absurd that most people would walk away immediately were it to be revealed to them all at once.) As an example of this cult tendency, Margaret Singer, in Cults in Our Midst, cites a researcher who quotes L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, as follows: “[N]ew followers or potential converts should not be exposed to [the language and cosmology of Scientology] at too early a stage. ‘Talking whole track to raw meat’ is frowned upon.” (p. 71)

9. Mind Control Techniques. These involve such measures as keeping members malnourished and in a state of exhaustion. The classic example of this was the conduct of Jim Jones’ cult in its Jonestown settlement in Guyana prior to the mass murder/suicide in 1978. More sophisticated methods are also used, examples being “self-criticism” (in political cults), the use of chanting and various forms of “sensory overload” in groups like the Hare Krishnas, and the use of “therapy,” as in the New Alliance Party.

Another important mind control technique is the destruction of personal privacy. The Moonies, for example, normally do not even allow potential recruits at their retreats to go to the bathroom unless accompanied by a member of their cult. This is a way of never allowing new or potential recruits to regain their mental balance.

Still another important mind control technique is the humiliation and intimidation of members. In Synanon, this took the form of “the game,” a warped encounter session in which individuals were attacked by other members of the group. In the People’s Temple the technique was cruder, with members being, among other things, sexually humiliated in public.

10. Thought-Stopping Language. This is another mind-control technique, but [Robert Jay] Lifton considers it so important that he made it one of his eight criteria of “ideological totalism” [in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism]. As Lifton puts it, the way that these “thought-terminating cliche[s]” operate is that “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.” (p. 429)

Put more broadly, thought-stopping phrases include any use of language, especially repeated phrases, to ward off forbidden thoughts. One common example of this is the admonition given to Catholic school children to recite the Hail Mary or rosary to ward off “impure thoughts.” The use of repetitive chanting by the Hare Krishnas serves the same thought-stopping purpose.

Another aspect of thought-stopping terms is that, as Ken Ragge points out [in More Revealed], “Loaded language, the language of non-thought, entails more than cliches. Individual words are given meanings or shades of meanings entirely separate from their normal usage.” (p. 136) To cite the most obvious example, the use of the word “Father” by members of many cults does not refer to a biological parent, but to the cult leader. These alternative meanings to common words serve to accentuate the separateness of cult members from “outsiders” or “normies” and–in the particular case cited here–infantilize members and discourage them from criticizing their “parent.”

 

All Posts in this Series

  • Characteristics of Cults (part 1)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 2)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 3)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 4)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 5)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 6)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 7)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 8)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 9)
  • Characteristics of Cults (part 10)