essays

Cults, culture, and charismatic leaders

I once dated someone who was a member of an ongoing, intensive support group, and I spent the first half of our relationship trying to persuade her that it was a cult. “You don’t need the group in order to be healthy!” I would tell her, “You don’t need them! Just look at me: I’m not a member of a regular support group, I don’t have any external teachers, and I’m doing just fine!” My partner’s support group also referred to non-members by an equivalent to “squares,” and this bothered me deeply. 

I spoke with my mother about the issue, and she pointed out that prior to dating my partner, I’d had a relationship with a therapist that was in many ways cultish. Perhaps what bothered me about my partner’s support group were its resonances with a path I myself had already walked?

According to the Cult Research and Information Center, some of the most salient characteristics of a cult include a) a charismatic leader, to whom the group expresses undying faith and obedience, b) mind-altering practices such as meditation or chanting, c) a polarized, elitist orientation with respect to society at large, d) the use of shame or guilt to maintain control, and e) through a combination of c and d, isolation of members from the rest of society. 

Through my therapist, I had encountered a sort of guru to whom my therapist and others in her school constantly deferred, so criterion a was clearly satisfied. Additionally, my therapist employed occult techniques such as muscle-testing, the body pendulum, and approached new clients with the understanding that they required help in order to access their own “truths,” so criteria b and d were present as well. Through working with my therapist, I received the label of being “internally healthy,” something I came to covet and which I required of others in order to continue friendships with or date them. For these reasons, criteria c and e were evident; through continual work with my therapist, I became increasingly judgmental of those who had not done this work, therefore becoming trapped in an insular world. 

While my mother’s mining of my psyche was obviously shrewd, there was another layer to my reaction that our conversation did not penetrate. Frankly, I was jealous of my girlfriend. Since deciding to quit seeing my therapist around the time my girlfriend and I had begun dating, I did not have a replacement form of support, and I saw my girlfriend attending a group where she received regular feedback, reflection, and counsel. Furthermore, I worried about not being needed: my girlfriend was receiving emotional support from a large community of people, so what did she require from me? Deep down, I feared being dispensable and consequently abandoned.

Another reason I think we react negatively to cults is that they make us question our own life choices, throwing into relief what had previously been taken for granted. Prior to meeting my girlfriend, I was convinced that the best life was totally self-reliant, that it was weak to need external feedback or guidance from any source. Once I met and started dating her, I wasn’t so sure; whether I acknowledged it to myself or not, I could see how much she gained from her regular meetings, and I felt lonely and adrift without the equivalent in my life. Was I making the “wrong” choices with respect to my own path and healing?

Finally, I think cults call into question things about our culture at large that we had formerly accepted as normal. Taking into consideration criteria a-e for cults expressed above, what is a president but a charismatic leader (a)? What is a teacher for that matter, or a head of school, head of an organization? What are pledges to the flag, prayers before meals, and national elections but mind-altering events (b)? More pointedly, what is advertising? What are grading, salary boosts, and the threats of being fired or demoted but forms of psychological pressure (d)? What are academic degrees, military rankings, sports medals, and other prizes but forms of elitism (c)? As a result of these designations and rankings when combined with psychological pressure (d), what do we become but emotionally weak, dependent on external validation (e)? In the microcosm of the so-called cult, I believe we encounter a reflection of our culture as a whole, a pill which can prove too strong for us to swallow. Because our own cult has been amplified to and normalized as cult-ure, we experience it as benign. 

Since dating my girlfriend, I am now a member of the Man Kind Project (MKP), an organization which outsiders have branded a cult. This is because, like the organization to which my girlfriend belonged, the MKP clearly satisfies cult criteria b and c (mind-altering practices and hues of elitism). However, also like the organization to which my girlfriend belonged, the MKP is a decentralized organization and therefore contains no charismatic leader (a), and it does not enforce attendance by guilt or shame (d); no one will ask me about it if I skip an MKP meeting. For these reasons, MKP does not as a rule isolate members from society at large (e). 

From the broadest angle, I believe our impulse to steer away or “save” others from cults is a form of psychological codependency, a trait which itself signals our desire to be charismatic leaders of our own. In my relationship with my girlfriend, when I told her that her support group was a cult and she should leave, what I really wanted was for her to substitute me in place of that support group; I wanted to be the font of her wisdom; I wanted to be the one she relied upon. Similarly, I think when we from the “mainstream” look upon the so-called fringes and deem them cults, what we really want is confirmation that our own life choices are “correct,” that we have missed nothing by sticking to the straight-and-narrow. Through attempting to “save” others from life decisions that, in the end, are not ours but theirs, I believe we seek to avoid the life inquiries upon which we ourselves might come up short: Where do I belong? What kind of support do I want? What do I believe in? By focusing on other people—whether in the form of a charismatic leader or as an acolyte—we recuse ourselves from the path of questioning which none but ourselves can answer. 

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