Cult Zeroes

Cults abound.  I grew up in one, and the apologists continue trying to convince more reasonable people of the cultists’ righteousness, that they have the answer(s), and you should give them all your money and worldly possessions in pursuit of oneness with their cult leader – because you can be damn sure there is a hierarchy, and they get the best of the best.

That’s why it’s a cult – or the politically correct assignment of ‘high-demand group’.   I don’t understand the more pleasant moniker, I suppose it seeks to lessen shame.

There are so many incarnations (pun intended?) of cults, it’s hard to know whether you’re dealing with one.

Here are a few handy tips, taken from Janja Lalich & Madeleine Tobias’s work: Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias (Berkeley: Bay Tree Publishing, 2006). It is adapted from a checklist originally developed by Michael Langone.

Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups – Revised

Janja Lalich, Ph.D. & Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.

Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.

‪ The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

‪ Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

‪ Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

‪ The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry – or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

‪ The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar – or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

‪ The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

‪ The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

‪ The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

‪ The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

‪ Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

‪ The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

‪ The group is preoccupied with making money.

‪ Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

‪ Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

‪ The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group. 

Not all of these need to be present for the cult classification, and apologists for cults will read the list, discounting what they read as ‘not entirely applying’, thereby allowing them to justify their beliefs about their group not being a cult.

It took a lot of work to de-program myself, especially when people like my mother still value their experience there.

I ended most of my relationships with ex-culters, and try to only communicate with those de-programmed, or non-apologists.

Several peers with whom I survived the cult continue reinforcing old cultisms such as believing the best, most positive, most understanding people were from their time there, when the reality is that bonds formed in childhood and young adulthood gain stature as time passes because you are known more completely than others recently met, such as co-workers, or casual friends.

The deep friendships I made outside the cult revealed how damaging that place was, because we forged lasting, trusting connections, while acquaintances, and co-workers, currently, and through the years, often increased my sense of isolation rather than connection.  Had I not made those honest and abiding friendships, I too, might believe that the cultists were right, and we were a special group, designated by god.

It’s also the ultimate egomania to believe that you were, or are, ‘chosen’, or accepted into such lofty ranks, above all on earth but those who worship or live as you do.

I’m grateful to have claimed back my autonomy, my power, and my voice.




© seekingsearchingmeaning (aka Hermionejh) and Life On Earth’s Blog, 2010 – infinity.

Author: Hermionejh

Laughter is my drug.