What Magazine: Bait on the hook: a cult experience

From XFamily - Children of God

Bait on the hook: a cult experience

What Magazine/1998-05-01

By Leslie Malkin

At the young age of 17, Johanne fell prey to mind control, psychological trauma and a perverted view of God and religion. Although she's out of the cult today and has her life back on track, the memories are indelible.

We received a letter from the big leader in the mail with pictures of adults having sex with children. He said we want our children to really be revolutionaries, to really be free... From this point on we're going to have sex with our children ...

These words must stir up feelings of shock, terror or revulsion within you. Maybe they also generate doubt, even disbelief, in your mind. But the words are true. They're part of Johanne's story - a woman who endured eight years of this horror, as a member of a cult.

Deception. Manipulation. Exploitation.

Each of these words is helpful in understanding what a cult is.

A cult is "a spurious or eccentric group that maintains a high degree of influence over its followers and sees itself as apart from the rest of society," says Joe Szimhart, an independent cult information specialist and consultant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, who was himself a devotee - "what they call a keeper of the flame" - to a cult in the late 1970s. "The ones that do harm use manipulation and deceit to control followers," he says.

The honeymoon phase

But how do people actually fall prey to this victimization?

"It's all a process," says Mike Kropveld, Executive Director of Montreal's Info Cult, a preventative educational resource on cults or cult-related situations for families. This process often begins almost like the "honeymoon phase" of a relationship. At first, a cult can appear seductive, alluring, almost too good to be true. And that's the deceit.

"Many former members confess that at first they felt a kind of wonder, as if they had drawn near something awesome," say Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich, both former cult members and now cult "experts," in their book Captive Hearts, Captive Minds. "They experienced a sense of exhilaration, excitement, passion, or expectation that was almost overwhelming."

"It's like falling in love," says Kropveld. "Love is blind (and you can) get totally, emotionally enmeshed (so that you no longer) look critically or evaluate." This is what happened to Johanne. It was 1972. At 17, while strolling the streets of Toronto with a friend, she was approached by someone offering free coffee and great music at a nearby coffee house.

Nothing was said about religion. I was going to hear a good band and hopefully see some cute guys. I was just a typical 17-year-old girl.

And she was captivated right off the bat.

All these guys came and sat down with us and they all wanted to know everything about us... But they weren't coming on sexually... And I was totally astounded. They presented themselves as clean, decent, good Christians (who) were able to be cool, just like all the hippies, but no hanky panky between the sexes, no drugs, no booze, no nothing - and I was totally amazed. I couldn't believe it at first. I said, `how is this possible in the middle of downtown Toronto?'

It's important to realize that a cult can bewitch almost anyone - not just simple, defenseless or weak people. Cult recruits are often in vulnerable or transitional stages in their lives, says Kropveld, perhaps having just experienced a breakup, a death or even leaving home for the first time. Szimhart agrees, claiming many cults target teens who are newly off to college. Johanne maintains she wasn't in a vulnerable situation, however.

I wasn't a druggie, I didn't run away from home, I had a fantastic home, great parents, I loved my brother and sister... The only thing that was different was the fact that I was new to Toronto. But I still managed to have some great friends, I was in my last year in high school, I was doing well and I was enjoying school... I wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary. The only thing that I was, was a bit naive... One of these positive thinkers that believed that everybody deserves a chance to be heard... Which is why I listened to them in the first place...

Powerful persuasion

Johanne continued returning to her new "friends" more and more often. Eventually, she didn't leave. Persuading her to come back to their commune alone, group members then preached to her: telling me a high school degree was worth nothing in heaven - that the only thing worth anything in heaven was your soul and what you'd done for god with your life... That if my parents really loved me they would want me to live for god... That my friends didn't understand me... Basically just making me feel very alienated from everybody outside there.

And they burdened her with guilt, demanding, "do you think anybody could possibly love you more than god and if he loves you like this, if he's willing to give his own son to die for you, how can you do anything but give him your life?"

Suddenly, Johanne's "friends" refused to walk with her to catch the last streetcar of the night. Too afraid to walk by herself, she was forced to stay.

I was suddenly very confused... I wanted to serve god but I was stuck. And so I stayed overnight and from that point on I was never, ever left alone. I had one girl assigned as my buddy who was with me 24 hours a day, even in the bathroom... And if I ran to get in the bathroom before her she stood outside the door reading bible verses to me.

Paralyzed by fear

Cult members use fear to make it impossible for recruits to leave and also to prevent them from complaining or objecting to anything imposed on them. This is the manipulation.

If somebody complained too much, they would throw you on the street with nothing. And the trouble is, when they would throw you out, you were in a psychological state. Some people went nuts. I've seen guys that were thrown out and they would end up in mental institutions because you're totally stripped of all your identity. You're given a new name and a whole new psychological (makeup).

They would always use those people as examples... "you see? This is what happens if you leave."

There were quite a few times that I came very close to leaving and didn't because of fear... Leaving the group was leaving god's presence which was going into darkness. You had absolutely no protection outside of god's light.

Members were kept in permanently confused states, emotionally and psychologically, Johanne says.

By keeping you that unstable they can feed you anything and it's hard to argue with it because they're your only sense of security. You can't relate to your family anymore outside, that's for sure... If you isolate someone enough, you can intimidate them into all kinds of things.

The term "brainwashing" is often used to refer to this deceptive psychological and social manipulation that is part of the cult experience. Experts prefer to call it "thought reform" or "mind control." Cults often use various techniques and impose certain conditions to help promote this thought reform on members, explain the authors of Captive Hearts, Captive Minds. These can include chanting, meditation, extensive indoctrination, information control, isolation, sleep and food deprivation, control of finances, rigid rules and sometimes even sexual abuse and torture.

It could happen to anyone...

"No one thinks it could happen to them," says Mike Kropveld. Johanne's story is indication that it could. But there are things you can do to protect yourself from a cult's influence. "Ask questions," Kropveld says, "(especially) before making any decisions which require a life change." Joe Szimhart encourages people to critically examine any new information presented to them and to extensively research any group before becoming involved. And never accept an invitation to experience the group before you've done your research.

"Going through the experience is like getting drunk," he says. "These groups are very good at making you feel you belong. It seems so normal, so believable; it's easy to become confused." Szimhart says there's no easy line to draw between a cult and a healthy belief system - religious or non-religious. But there are questions you can ask yourself about any group that is trying to woo you:

Is there an abusive authority? Does this person think they're above all other authorities? Are there enough "checks and balances" within the system for it to remain a healthy society? Do they respect the society around them? Is there a free flow of information - both into and out of the group - or is it a very closed system?

"A spurious group has a hidden agenda, one that only inside members are aware of and outside society is not privy to," says Szimhart. "That's always a red flag."

As a new member, Johanne was subjected to eight to 10 hours a day of intensive Bible memorization, training and teaching.

They were slowly indoctrinating me to believe that "Moses" (the group's leader and founder) was the last prophet of God. And that we were his revolutionary army and we were going to totally change the world... Try to save as many human beings as possible for the kingdom of God...

And we literally lived like an army. The girls all slept in one room in their sleeping bags and the guys all slept downstairs... A guy with a bugle would wake us up in the morning, we'd jump out of bed and do our prayers by rote and then start our memorizing, then everybody would have breakfast and then we'd have classes which was reading the leader's writing and a bit of the bible.

And they had a system set up, you were a member of a tribe, like the 12 tribes of Israel. Each tribe had a leader and you had to report to that leader all the time. That leader could discipline you, (force you into) a room (to) fast for two days and pray for forgiveness for complaining about the food. I was punished one time by having to clean the toilets with a toothbrush.

Powerless pawns

Once members are completely worn down - physically, emotionally and mentally - they can be coerced into almost anything, for the "good of the group" or "for God." This is the exploitation.

We were supposed to start going out to night clubs and "flirty fishing" the men. The guys too, flirty fishing the women. You had to use sexual flirting and attraction... Like the bait on the hook so that you could preach to the guy... (we) really didn't believe (we) were actually expected to sleep with anybody.

As time went on, the pressure started. "you can't possibly make them believe you really love them if you won't share yourself with them." and they would use verses from the bible... "woman is made for man." the verse where Jesus said, "I have given my body for you..." and that we should be willing to do the same if we love a soul... And they started wanting us to sleep with whatever brother they said, at any time.

Real Salvation

In a bizarre sense, Johanne was lucky. She had reached a point where the cult could force her to do almost anything. But, by this time, she also had two children and a third on the way. And perhaps her love for her children helped save her.

We received a letter from the big leader in the mail... He said... From this point on we're going to have sex with our children... That was it! That was the cherry on the cake for me. I just flipped. I cracked up. I started running around the commune screaming that this is not god, I'm getting out, if anyone touches my kids I'm going to kill them. It was March, 1980.

Johanne was forced to leave without her children. Happily, she got them back after a couple of months. It's taken years for Johanne to get past the trauma. After meeting Mike Kropveld, she began volunteering at Info Cult, telling her story, helping other ex-cult members, and eventually, received counselling.

Now for the next phase of my life: I have a good job, things are going well and i have my three kids with me, they're doing well... I'm doing great.