CULTS IN OUR MIDST*
When most people think of cults what tends to come to mind is the Manson Family or Jim Jones and the Kool-aid. Heaven’s Gate members in those bunk beds with plastic bags covering their heads. Aum Shinrikyo unleashing Sarin gas in the Tokyo Subway. There’s a reason people associate the word cult with the most extreme examples, i.e. death cults. It’s a way of distancing themselves from a terrifying phenomenon. A way of saying “I’d never get involved with anything like that.” In fact, cult behavior and cult leaders are far more common that we’d like to think.
Death cults are at the far end of a spectrum that in its milder stretches can include just about any group and the leader they revere: sports teams and coaches, squads and sergeants, flocks and preachers, companies and CEOs, students and teachers. It’s natural to respect a leader for their superior knowledge and skill. The danger comes when respect turns to worship. One sign that this is happening is when the leader pushes a supposedly unique set of practices or beliefs. Whether it’s how to kick a ball or the way to touch the face of God, they’re crystal clear: their way is the only way.
My first novel NEVER SPEAK is centered around a cult. Its writing was informed by the twenty years I endured in a spiritual group. It never occurred to me that I was in a cult until I was out of it. None of us committed murder or suicide, or even raised a fist. But you don’t need to experience lurid evil in order to have a part of your soul killed.
And speaking of souls…One of the great mysteries about cults is just what in the world motivates their members to commit such destruction to themselves and others. To waste precious years and thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars. To risk marriages and children and sanity itself.
The answer to this mystery is that many, many people—depending on your beliefs, the majority, or even all—have a hole in their soul. It hurts, badly enough that they’ll do a lot to try and fill it. For some it’s a mouse-sized thing which they can plug with comforting habits or couple of beers. Others limp around with a gaping wound. They’ll do anything—risk their children’s safety, risk ODing on fentanyl—to avoid continuing to live with that hole.
Cult leaders promise to fill that hole right up to the top. Judging from my personal experience, they have a special skill in common with psychopaths: a powerful radar which allows them to discern in seconds another’s weakness. They perceive in detail the peculiar shape of their wound. They have another talent: the ability to describe in words something that sounds like just the thing to fill that hole. The only thing. And then they seal the deal: they promise to deliver it.
Cult leaders have a third talent. As they deliver their promise by voice (what’s called in spiritual circle via “oral transmission”) they evoke in their audience using some vibrational wizardry, a good feeling. And suddenly that promise is no longer words. That feeling seems a foretaste of what’s coming, an end to the aching chasm inside.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that every great orator is running a cult. I was blessed to hear the Reverend Martin Luther King preach in 1963. The sound of his voice evoked a powerful feeling in me, one that suffused all that I knew of racism and the necessity for civil rights with new urgency. I would never again see a black person without remembering his words, and what he sang at the end, backed by a choir of women: “We shall overcome, some day.” What I felt hearing him was complicated, and directed outside of myself.
What’s confusing is that some cult leaders at least start out with real gifts to impart to their followers. One of the things that makes the TV documentary Wild Wild Country so compelling is the question of whether Rajneesh was a con man, a spiritual teacher or both.
But really, why should you care? Chances are you don’t have a family member or friend who’s been acting secretive lately and who you fear has gotten involved in some scary group. If you’re one of a consistent majority of Americans who disapprove of the job our president is doing, you should be very concerned. Because a plausible explanation for the confounding political situation that’s gripped our country for two years and counting is that Donald Trump is the leader of a cult.
I’m not alone in this view. In this article the author interviews a cult expert:
You write that members of "totalistic" cults—those that consider their ideology the one true path—share four key characteristics. They 1) espouse an all-encompassing belief system; 2) exhibit excessive devotion to the leader; 3) avoid criticism of the group and its leader; and 4) feel disdain for non-members. That all sounds unnervingly familiar.
Indeed. Another cult trait exhibited by Trumpsters is brainwashing. What else would you call a steady and exclusive diet of Fox News and Breitbart? And then there’s fear. The flipside of the good feeling a cult leader gives his followers is the terror he instills in them. It’s the thing that makes cults so hard to leave. Religious leaders warn that leaving their church will mean being “cast into the outer darkness” or just plain burning in hell. Trump warns that abandoning him will cause the economy to crash and evil hordes to stream across the border.
There’s one difference between the cult leaders I describe above and the President. A Washington Post columnist writes here about Trump having all the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, including “an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.” If this is true, then Trump is incapable of sussing out the inner needs of his followers. His talent instead is to perceive the collective hurt of an entire class of people. But the mechanism is the same: he knows instinctively what will make these people feel better, and hope for even better if they continue to support him.
What’s to be done about the Trump Cult, aside from the next election and Robert Mueller? I’m not optimistic. Between the promise of fixing that hole and the threat of outer darkness, it’s almost impossible for members to leave cults. I couldn’t leave the group I was trapped in until it fell apart. And that’s typical.
The scary thing about the Trump Cult is how darned cheap membership is. You don’t have to give him your money, or your wife (in most cases). You don’t slave away for no money long into the night until you’re dead on your feet from lack of sleep. And Trump doesn’t browbeat you (his enemies are another matter.) For the price of a MAGA hat and gas money to one of his rallies you’re good to go.
The bill for this American adventure of course will come later, and Trumpsters will not be exempt. Democracy corrupted, civil war, climate change Armageddon….
So I hope they’re enjoying that good feeling while it lasts.
* Cults in our Midst by Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich is one of the definitive work. I found it helpful after leaving mine.
My first novel Never Speak will be published one week from today! Pre-order it here: