Cults in America: Former Members Speak Out

The following are excerpts from a panel discussion on destructive cults (and the recent tragedy in Waco, Texas), which originally aired on WBAI Radio’s “Friday Talkback!” on April 23, 1993.  Joining Producer/host Marina Ortiz were ex-cult members, including Monica Pignotti, a former devotee of the Church of Scientology; Rhonda Robinson, an ex-member of the International Workers Party; Pat Gofski, a former member of a Central Connecticut, bible-based cult led by one Brother Julius; and Lorna Goldberg, a clinical social worker who counsels former cult members and runs a support group in the tri-state area.

Marina:  Let’s begin by reviewing the tragedy which began on February 28 when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted an early-morning raid on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian, Mt.  Carmel compound in Waco, Texas (the cult, a perverse offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, had supposedly acquired an arsenal of illegal weapons).  The ATF agents were then fired upon by cult members inside the compound who had been tipped off about the raid by an unnamed journalist.  Four federal agents and six cult members died in the initial conflict.  The ensuing 51-day standoff was then broken by government agents on April 19 when they shot tear-gas canisters into the compound--an act that led to a firestorm which swept the compound and claimed the lives of 86 cult members, including 24 children.

Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton maintain that last Monday’s raid was the only possible solution at the time--the best way to avert a possible mass suicide, they said--and that, rather than face the world (and hundreds of government snipers) outside, the cult members chose to die with their leader, David Koresh, and that they deliberately set fire to the compound.  Still others say that the agents had tired of the wait-and-see tactic, that they had refused to consult with cult experts, that they had ended negotiations with the cult members, and that they had refused to allow any communication between the cult and their relatives outside the compound.

Most of the nine survivors--those who managed to escape the blaze--maintain that the fire was caused by a lantern which was turned over by the tear gas canisters which had been shot into the compound, and that those who remained in the burning building had been trapped by falling debris.  They also maintain that David Koresh had held out in the hopes of finishing a religious manuscript--the Seventh Seal--after which they had planned to surrender.  The government maintains that the cult members were intending to launch a suicide attack and kill as many agents as possible.  They also insist that firefighters were restrained from putting out the fire for over 30 minutes only because the burning compound was filled with hand grenades and millions of rounds of ammunition.  One month later, less than 80 bodies have been found, and although most of the corpses were burned beyond recognition (along with evidence as to cause of death), several, including Koresh, have been found with bullet holes in the head.

A Senate committee will now investigate the government’s handling of the situation, although the consensus of its members already seems to be in favor of the government’s action.  With the general public, over 79% of those polled believe the government did everything they could, and that this was an unavoidable tragedy for which David Koresh and Branch Davidians are solely to blame, while 19% maintain some doubt.  Still others think the tragedy will have severe implications for other cults, whose leaders might use this incident to further exacerbate their “us vs.  them” mindset.  The consensus also seems to be that the agents should have gone in sooner, and that these were just a bunch of kooks whose lives were somehow worthless.  Could this tragedy, in fact, have been avoided? And, what are the implications for the future?

Monica:  I strongly disagree with the whole way it was handled--the way that people in the group were just written off as a bunch of kooks, a bunch of fanatics.  I feel that there were other ways to handle it; there were cult experts such as Steven Hassan--who’s got a master’s degree in counseling psychology, 17 years of counseling people out--who tried to get faxes through and nothing got through.  There are other people who have been in the field for years and years such as Margaret Thayler Singer, PhD., people who could have reached the cult members through peaceable means.  I guess our culture just has a hard time believing that things can be settled peaceably.

The FBI could have handled this differently if they had allowed family members to come in.  I’d just like to respond to what the FBI said about that.  The FBI said that family members had already been trying for years, well this may have been true.  But, however, I doubt if they had the advise of cult experts.  The ones that I heard talking had been trying to handle it by directly attacking the group and telling the members they were in a cult--all the wrong things to do.  If they had had proper advise and communicated with their family members in that way, there could have been some hope.  I feel that even if one life could have been saved that way, that it would have been worth it to give it a try.

Marina:  I was watching “Larry King Live” last night.  While most of the parents were in agreement with what you’re saying, there was a couple from the New York Area--whose son died in the initial shootout on February 28--who were, however, in agreement with the FBI, and they blame Koresh.  What do you think, Rhonda?

Rhonda:  Well, I was very upset with how the media handled the whole coverage of what was going on in Waco, calling it “Wacko,” relating to people who were a part of cults as if they’re out of their minds, not having an understanding of the slow, but steady process that people who are under mind control are put through.  Someone doesn’t walk up to you on the street and say, “Hey, do you want to join a cult?” It’s a very slow process, you’re seduced into one of the front organizations of the cult.  You’re then told how wonderful you are.  You start working very hard, giving more of yourself, and then eventually, you’ve gotten so much love ...

Marina:  So, you think ...

Rhonda:  ...  Your ego and self-esteem are raised to the highest level, and then you’re invited to become a part of this cult and things change overnight.

Marina:  Pat, you were in a similar, bible-based group.  You were there for 18½ years.  This is a Central Connecticut-based group led by one Brother Julius.  Do you see any similarities between your group and the Branch Davidians?

Pat:  Yes, very much so.  The leader that I followed, Brother Julius, also believed that he was Jesus Christ.  Except, he took it a step further in believing that Jesus Christ and God were one, so, therefore, he was almighty God--which gave him another edge of authority over the group.  Coupled with that was his third ex-wife, who they believe to be the Holy Spirit.  Like Koresh, who looked at himself as the “sinful messiah,” Julius also taught many lessons that he was the “sinful messiah.”  Koresh had his 19 wives, and Julius has eight wives and many concubines with whom he sleeps.  Sex is a very important part of the group, it’s considered the special work, one of the highest callings that a male or female can be privy to.  Also, Koresh believed that he was here to punish the world for its sins.  That was the main doctrine that Julius in Connecticut taught, was that he was here to do vengeance work and pay people back for their sins.  If you didn’t accept him and what he said, then you were a sinner and fit for destruction.

Marina:  I understand you were kicked out the group because you just happened to have had the misfortune of getting sick?

Pat:  I didn’t leave as a result of being kicked out, but I was kicked out at one point because I was working 50-60 plus hours for a cult-owned and operated real estate firm, which was a multi-million-dollar operation.  I ran my body into the ground and ended up in the hospital with a severe lymphatic infection.  When people went to clean my house, they found it dirty and went back and reported to him.  Next thing you know, I was ex-communicated, called a witch, a bitch, a whore in front of all of my former friends, none of which was true.  My family and I were ostracized, shunned, and I eventually lost my job with the cult company.

Marina:  [Like you, Rhonda,] I was also very upset about the way the media has handled the situation.  While we’ve gotten some serious in-depth analysis and public awareness campaigns going, we mostly have had blazing headlines about the “Texas barbecue” and other vulgar phrases coined by journalists who had been staking out the compound.  Just last [month,] Newsday ran a front-page column by Jimmy Breslin who said that most journalists were hoping for riots after the Rodney King verdict.  I’d like to ask you, Lorna, what do you think about how the media handles these kinds of tragedies?

Lorna:  There’s a dehumanizing that seems to go on.  Generally, when things happen, people want to blame victims, and this is very troubling.  People want to feel that they could never get caught up in a cult, and these are wacky people, who are very different from themselves.  But, as we’re hearing today, anyone can get caught up in a cult.

Marina:  I’ve been seeing that over and over again, that everyone or anyone whose ever joined a cult is forever labeled a kook.  Or that you have to be extremely weak in the first place to join.  Lorna, you do a lot of counseling of ex-cult members and you and your husband, Bill Goldberg, also run a support group in the tri-state area for ex-cult members called FOCUS.  Do you think that’s the case?

Lorna:  Absolutely not.  It’s similar to people who want to blame the victim of rape or other kinds of situations.  It’s a way that people have to protect themselves from the possibility of something like this happening to them.  People who get involved in cults are as different and diverse as any other group of people that you would meet.  The people that we have worked with over the last 17-18 years in this area, have been very bright, idealistic people who are usually in a transition period in their life, and might be looking for a sense of community because of that situation.  They might be in a new job location, in a college campus, traveling, in a divorce situation.  They might be a newly widowed person, something has changed in their life and they’re looking for something new, a sense of community, they might be slightly depressed, but all of us get into those periods in our lives.

Marina:  On the other hand, you could make the argument that we live in a society which many perceive as being dysfunctional--what with crime, and drugs, and so forth.  You turn on the television or you walk down the street and you’re bombarded with people presenting innovative ideas on how to better yourself or save the world.  What makes these groups cults, and how do we differentiate a destructive cult, from say the Catholic Church?

Lorna:  Throughout history, there have been unorthodox groups or religions that have been called cults.  However, when we talk about destructive cults, we’re talking about groups that exhibit an excessive devotion to a charismatic leader, and particularly that deceive--that employ deceptive, manipulative techniques of persuasion.

Marina:  That certainly seems to ring a bell.  I attended a conference sponsored by the Cult Awareness Network.  Pat, you were on the panel, as were Rhonda and Monica, and it was just so amazing to hear that--even though we came from very different groups, whether it was political or religious--that we all had basically the same thing to say.  We all had a leader at the top who was the ultimate genius, savior, messiah, depending on whether it was religious or political ...

Rhonda:  Our guru [was the next “Lenin” ...]

Marina:  ...  and then, underneath him you had an inner circle of people protecting and currying more favors than those at the bottom, who were not given as much information or received as many of the benefits, monetary or what have you, as the folks on top.

Monica:  Well, that’s the whole key to it, There’s a whole lot of information control in cults.  And the people at the bottom--the people just coming in--have no idea they’re going to be asked to follow a leader.  And so, you don’t get, necessarily, dependent types of people, which is a big myth that I get all the time--”Oh, I would never get into one of these.”  About 99% of the people who have not had the experience themselves, say that to me.  What they don’t understand is that people don’t join cults, people get recruited into cults through deception and through mind control.  Mind control does exist and we’re all vulnerable to it.

Pat:  It goes back to that we’re all human, and these cults prey--like vultures would prey--on our humanness.  They can key into our sensitive areas--like when we’re going through a transition.  They meet you and they’re concerned about your problem--what a good friend they turn out to be, and eventually--it’s so subtle--you like them and they get you to go to a meeting or a seminar.  They’re so skilled at noticing and trying to identify, “what makes this person tick, and where can I meet this person on his or her level in order to help them and recruit them into my particular group?”

Rhonda:  [Yes,] I [hope] that if one person who’s a member of the IWP, or who is around one of the front organizations of the IWP, whether that be the New Alliance Party, the Castillo Cultural Center ...  before that person jumps in there and joins--or who’s in there has conflicts about what it is that they’re really doing--then maybe they’ll hear this.  There’s a denial of information, particularly about ex-members.  And if an ex-member was able to get information out ...  For instance, there was an article written in 198[7] by Dennis Serrette who is an ex-member of the IWP and who ran as their candidate for president [in 1984] which appeared in Radical America in 1988.  [Serrette and others] are turned into an “agent of the state,” or a “traitor,” or [they’re] getting paid lots of money to tell these lies.  I just want whomever might be with the IWP or any other cult, to maybe hear this today, hopefully, and think--look up the word cult in the dictionary, see what it means, or read Steven Hassan’s, “Combating Cult Mind Control,” and move out of this thing that has control over your mind, your life, your total essence, your total being.

Marina:  Yes, I’ve read that book, Rhonda, and Hassan mentions some of the points that you were making about the different ways of controlling, emotional control, information, control of behavior, and lifestyle, and so forth.  And, Monica, at the conference, you mentioned something about a secret level?

Monica:  Yes, this is part of the information control.  The group that I was in, as all other cults that are destructive, are not up-front about their beliefs.  If you ask a recruiter what does your group believe, they’re going to give vague, global, evasive answers.  And Scientology has a secret, upper level that people are told they’re not ready to hear yet because, of course, cultists assume that they’re exclusive and those outside are unenlightened and not ready.  And so, they say, “well, you’re not ready to hear this yet.  If you saw these materials you would go insane, you would get sick, you would die.”  But, their secret upper level turns out to be a piece of science fiction because [L.  Ron Hubbard] was a science fiction writer.

Marina:  That seems to be the case with the IWP.  After I left in 1990, I was very sh[a]ken up, I knew that things were wrong there, but I didn’t know how to think it through.  For a long time, I was racked by a lot of guilt because I was a traitor to the working class, I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t have what it takes and everyone who had been my friend--my life--suddenly turned their backs on me because I had quit and was longer was dedicating my life to save “the working class”--that was our understanding.  Finally, I stepp[ed] back and starting taking a [closer] look at things and reading all of the literature that had been critical.  It wasn’t like they didn’t give you access to this information--although in many cases they didn’t.  Generally though, folks were allowed to read because most newspapers had a lot to say about them.  But I couldn’t begin to see what people were saying until after I left and then I was able to start thinking [more clearly] and making judgments and doing more research on cult--specifically cults.  And, I came to see how many different groups--religious, political, environmental, psychotherapy--they were all the same.  And I decided to do something about it and I started writing about it.  But, you still get the response of [them] turning their back on you.  They refuse to respond, they refuse to have a dialogue.  Was it the same for you, Monica?

Monica:  Absolutely, there’s so much fear of former members--of outsiders.  There’s so much fear about leaving the groups because they install a phobia of leaving.  It took me a whole year from the time I started having doubts to the time I left because I was so terrified of what would happen if I left the group--it just meant oblivion.  And I would go back and forth.  It’s not that we don’t have doubts.  People ask me--when I tell them about the horrendous things that went on; I was on a ship with Hubbard--there was tremendous abuse.  “Didn’t you think it was a little odd?” people ask me.  And, I say “Yes, I did.  But I was trained to rationalize it and blame myself for what was going on.

Marina:  Cults appeal to people who may be vulnerable, but who also may be looking for solutions to particular problems. I considered myself progressive and this seemed like a very optimistic way to do something to improve the political system.  Others may seek religious enlightenment.  And, what they present to you on the outside is what draws you in.  But, had anyone said to me seven years ago that I would be working 12-16 hour days, fundraising or making [hundreds of] calls and Xeroxes, [never sleeping], and neglecting my children.  I have two kids and they’re weren’t abused or anything, but they were certainly neglected because of course, the priority was to save the world, children came later.  It was very crazy, but we understood it that way.  How was it for you, Pat?

Pat:  It was the same because nothing could come before the leader.  [Brother Julius] used the idea that you can’t love father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter more than me.  And, if you do, you’re not worthy [of] me.  So, members had to put him and his teachings above everything else in their life, including their families which, brings me to back to the question--and, Lorna, maybe you can address it--”how could those mothers have led their own children--if they did--to their deaths? And how could a mother have stood by while her child died, if in fact, she was alive and seeing this whole thing?”

Lorna:  Well, Marina touched on it in talking about how she was in a position of neglecting her children because of the demands of the group.  In these cults, your allegiance is to the leader more than anyone else, including your children--that’s the most important tie and it’s reinforced over and over, that you must believe what the leader says without question.  Koresh’s vision of the world was shared by everyone in that compound and that meant that if there’s an after-life, then they were the forces of good fighting the forces of evil and it was Armageddon--the end of the world was coming and they had to sacrifice themselves to be martyrs in this life.  If this was his vision, they had to share his vision.  So, they believed without question, that they were saving their children; they did not believe that they were killing their children.  A lot of people wonder, “how could that woman who left the compound, want to go back to the flames ...  the FBI had to rescue her from the flames.  Boy, she must be crazy to want to go back into that compound!” but she was trying to save herself because this is what Koresh told her and she believed what he said without question.

Marina:  We have also seen this kind of tragedy in Jonestown[, Guyana], when over 900 people committed suicide or were murdered by Rev.  Jim Jones and in 1985 [Wilson Goode,] the Mayor of Philadelphia gave an order to firebomb an entire neighborhood [of MOVE activists and their children].

Lorna:  We haven’t learned yet, have we? The sad thing is that these people have not committed suicide; the leaders of these groups commit murder...  they’ve become so dependent.  The more isolated they became over time--and the more the FBI did things to “prove” Koresh’s way of looking at the world--that the outside world was evil, “look at what they’re doing to us, they’re bombarding us with lights and noise, they’re jailing the people that come out of the group, they’re breaking through our windows and pouring in gas!” This played into their fears and paranoia.

Marina:  I understand that the use of blazing lights and [loud music and sounds of animals being slaughtered] was a way that they thought they could “brainwash” them out of the compound.  There was also speculation that the children had been given lethal injections before the fire.  And, on the other hand, that where the FBI poked holes into the compound was where the children were kept.

Lorna:  I don’t know about those specifics.  But, from what I’ve been hearing, the FBI saw this as a hostage situation, and I think that that was their mistake.  Cult experts weren’t consulted in this situation, from everything I’ve heard, and that concerns me because this [was] not a hostage situation, it [was] a very different type of situation.

Marina:  What do you think about the posture that the government seems to be maintaining? On the one hand, Attorney General Janet Reno says that, in retrospect, maybe it was not the right thing to do, while still insisting that that was the only solution.  What else do you think could have been done in addition to bringing cult experts in to negotiate?

Lorna:  I think that the lights and the music, just played into their paranoia and fear.  A lot of the families wish that they had had more access to the people in the compound--that there might have been some way that they could remind them that there is an outside world, that they had a life before.  Even though your cultic personality is there, there is another you, the old you and there are ways to appeal to the old you if you’re in a cult.  And, there could have been more attempts in that regard.

Marina:  Yes, I can’t help but remember the times that I was in meetings and/or therapy sessions--our particular group has something called Social Therapy which is what drew me to them in the first place.  I was under some stress and I just wanted some help.  I didn’t want to change the world.  I didn’t want to be a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary--or at least pretend that I was one.  I just wanted some help, and, although I had doubts, I couldn’t see things for what they were[, and instead blamed myself.]

Pat:  Yes, people wonder why the [Branch Davidians] stayed.  “How come, with everything going on, they didn’t leave?” [But,] if we [recall,] Koresh [predicted] that the FBI would assassinate him and that that would be the way that he would die.  So, when the FBI showed up at his doorstep, I [think] that that reinforce[d] their so-called belief in him as Jesus Christ.  It’s like, “My God! Look at this! His prophecies are coming to pass!”

Marina:  And, I understand that there was a theologist who had attempted to dissuade Koresh from that thinking, but that the communication was cut off.  Rhonda, even though we were in the same group, you have a very different way of talking about it.  [I had been discussing it on a purely political level because a lot of us who leave the IWP still think that we didn’t have what it takes to be a good “leftist,” or that the Organization sold out--that it was just “bad politics.”]

Rhonda:  A lot of people who leave feel as if [they’ve] failed--[they] failed the working class, people of color, women--and that [we’re] now going to wander in the abyss, the dustbin of nothingness.  It’s a great [tactic] they have because it leaves people wandering with no direction in their life, no idea what they had been through and it keeps us silent and, in that silence, the IWP is protected.  While some do talk, they talk about the New Alliance Party.  But, if you’re gonna talk out on that front, you’re always gonna lose because you gotta deal with the roots of the tree, which is the cult.  The NAP, one day the wind will come along--it’s no longer important, it doesn’t serve a purpose, they can’t raise funds off of it--and that leaf will fall off and a new one will spring up.  You gotta deal with the roots of the tree because then you can see what your experience has been; that you have been a member of a cult, that you have been under mind control.  It lets you get over the anger.  It lets you get on with your life and doing something about changing things.

Marina:  In the course of my doing research on [the IWP,] I found that they have created dozens and dozens and dozens of front groups.  They build them, prop them up--they’re sort of paper committees and organizations that they use to raise money or to try to get credibility within the left [and minority communities].  Everything they say publicly sounds great.  And, if you’re progressive, these are things that you would want to see happen--democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, and so forth.  But I found that they had created and demolished dozens and dozens of organizations.  For example, 15 years ago they were more focused on organizing the lower strata through the Unemployed and Welfare council.  Is it like that in Scientology, Monica?

Monica:  Oh, Absolutely.  They have dozens of front groups.  They target dentists and chiropractors and people who have private practices, who are successful and making a lot of money because they’re a big source of income.  And they send them flyers under a completely different name--Sterling Management, Singer--all different [fronts].  They use a hard-sell approach to get them to take courses to improve their business--that’s the only thing [they think] they’re [about.] And, once they’ve [taken] the course, they’re recruited into Scientology by saying, “well, you’ll get more maximum benefits from this course if you work on some things.”  They give them a “personality test” and they use a technique which they call “finding a person’s ruin,” which is one of their main recruiting techniques.  And, they find with each person, “what are the places in their life where they’re the most vulnerable, the things that they most want to change?” and they’ll find out what it is and then they’ve got the person.  They convince them then that Scientology can help them change that.  But those getting involved, have no idea.  One dentist--who got involved through Sterling Management--he and his wife went through $180,000 in six months and his wife was in a mental institution for a week at the end of it all.

Marina:  That sounds very, very familiar.  Let’s take some calls and find out what folks think about the situation in Waco, Texas--how it was handled by the government, by the media.  What do you think about cults?

Caller 1:  I feel very bad [about] what happened to those people and I wouldn’t want to use the word “cult” as if they were some kind of aliens so the government can destroy them.  I just saw [them] as people who didn’t want to deal with society and moved by themselves to a nice farm with their animals, friends, and family.  They weren’t hurting anybody.  I don’t know why the FBI had to flush them out the way they did as if they’re not human!

Marina:  I agree.  I think that was uncalled for.  I think that the deaths could have been prevented.  [And,] if they were conducting illegal activity, no matter.  It could have been prevented.  Lorna, it seems to go back to what constitutes a cult.  Don’t people have, under the constitution, the right to freedom of speech, thought, opinion, lifestyle, and so forth? While I don’t want to sympathize with David Koresh, on the one hand, by saying that I think the FBI was wrong, but I also don’t think they should now go into all these other groups and attack them and kill them or whatever.  What do you think about that, Lorna?

Lorna:  Absolutely.  One of the beauties of our constitution is that we have the First Amendment, which means freedom of religion.  This country was founded on many different religions--people who came from other countries and were persecuted.  I think it’s very important that we protect religious freedom.  However, I think what came to pass was that the outside community became concerned when they [began] arming themselves and changing guns to become automatic and semi-automatic, [which] was seen as illegal.  However, this did not seem to be the best way to handle this situation.  It might have been [better] if Koresh had been picked up on the street--separating him from the recruits and the people under his control--and protecting them in that way and getting to him alone.

Marina:  What I also find interesting is how the government can condone, on the one hand, the deaths of these people--86 people, including 24 children--but on the other hand, the more insidious, day-to-day influence that these cults--I believe there are over 3,000 groups that are described as destructive cults by the Cult Awareness Network--the more insidious, day-to-day, stranglehold that they enjoy in their respective political and religious arenas.  For example, the Rev.  Moon who is the head of the Unification Church, just purchased the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  This is the same man who in 1982 was found in congressional hearings to have connections to the Korean CIA, and who on the other hand, has two newspapers, The Washington Times and Noticias del Mundo here in New York, and has enormous influence in conservative political arenas in Washington.  And you have others like Lyndon LaRouche, who--although he’s in jail--still exerts influence on the right-wing political arena in this country, and who was supposedly a consultant to the Reagan administration.

Lorna:  I think that these cults, on the backs of their recruits--who give over their money or fundraise full time [and] become slaves to these groups--on their backs they amass tremendous amounts of money and money buys influence.  It’s very unfortunate that in such cases as the University of Bridgeport, the board or some of the board looked the other way and they were not alarmed that this is a group that uses deceptive recruiting practices and mind control techniques.  [Moon] wants to use the University to gain prestige and as a way of giving scholarships to people.  Once they’re at the University, they can [then] brainwash them to become Moonies.

Marina:  And here in New York, we have the IWP’s front group, the New Alliance Party, which runs candidates for political office inside and outside the Democratic Party and which--to a very, very small degree--is somewhat of a nuisance here in New York City and they have the right to do that.  They have the right to run for office.  They have the right to raise money.  But, do they have the right to take money from people under false pretenses?

Caller 2:  First of all, I don’t understand why Janet Reno’s office did not consult the Cult Awareness Network because it seems that with some foreknowledge here, it certainly [might] have avoided the tragedy.

Marina:  I think that they had this general “macho” attitude.  They were just gonna go in there and get them.  And, when they couldn’t get them, they were going to annoy them to death or to come out.  And then they got tired of that--and they needed relief.  So, they decided to storm into the compound, and [people] died.

Caller 2:  [They] didn’t have a clue! It would have made so much more sense to get a psychological profile, to know that this guy was just like Jim Jones.  It was just a set-up!

Lorna:  I’ve spoken to the national office of the Cult Awareness Network and some cult experts and they weren’t contacted, they weren’t called in.  The [FBI] knew that they were there.  But, I think that they relied on their old sources--people that had been involved with them in the past in hostage negotiating situations.

Caller 2:  I also think that when you study how people do get brainwashed, generally there is a need somewhere, in [those] who [are] vulnerable to cults, [although] I think your point is well taken that they can even brainwash a “strong” person after a while.  And, I think the fact that we raise children in an authoritarian way, and use corporal punishment, and do not encourage them to think or act for themselves, to rely on their own judgment and make them more self-reliant--[makes for] a fertile field for people to be sucked in by cults.

Marina:  But, then again, we also live in a mass media society.  We’re constantly bombarded with all sorts of information.  So a lot of the old ways of living have broken down.  I’m not at all promoting a Daniel Quayle “back to family” [standard] that never existed for me or my people, but just to say that we live in a sort of dysfunctional, mass media, society.

Caller 3:  I have very mixed feelings about it all.  The [purchase of the] University of Bridgeport situation is going forward pretty much.  We’ve been fighting against it, but [once] they get the accreditation, there will be a University controlled by the Unification Church just 72 miles north of New York City!

Caller 4:  I was also involved in a cult 20 years ago--Krishna Consciousness--when I was in college.  I think that cults have become so much more sophisticated and it’s almost impossible to tell what a cult is! In those days, it seemed so more simpler--it didn’t seem like a cult.  My husband and I were in the cult together and he has gone back.  If we had had children, we would have had to give our children to a school in Texas, in Dallas where [they] would be taken away from us to be raised under “Krishna consciousness,” so I sort of understand what was going on in Waco.

Lorna:  Yes, we saw that in Jim Jones’ cult, we saw that with David Koresh.  Cults often get worse over time and cultists become more controlled.  The cultists are dependent on the mental health of their leaders.  In some of the smaller cults--like David Koresh’s or Jim Jones’--when the [leaders] become more and more paranoid and more and more disturbed, since what they say has ultimate authority and the members have become totally dependent on their way of looking at things, the cult will degenerate over time.  And, yes, techniques [over the years] have become much more sophisticated.  And, [in addition to] the larger groups--like the Hari Krishnas, Scientology, and the Unification Church which were big in the 70s, and continue today--there are smaller groups [formed] by some who get involved in cults, learn techniques in these larger groups and then go out and form new groups using those techniques plus their own natural manipulative techniques.

Rhonda:  The leader of the [IWP] is Fred Newman, [who] in 1989 came back from a trip to Europe with a new, much younger bride, and [who] told us how this young woman “wanted” him.  Her “wanting” him was the most progressive thing that had happened to him.  Her “wanting” him was “wanting the revolution.”  She [also helped] him “realize” how much he had been used by members of the IWP--which actually wasn’t true because he needed us and our slave labor in order to live the way he did.  Then everything [turned] from “making a revolution” and changing the world to “wanting” Fred Newman, because he was the only person who could realize a revolution in the United States of America.  He was the communist leader, which [seemed] was pretty powerful.  It was also a cleansing process.  A lot of people left off of that.  I that think the smarter ones saw very quickly how absurd all this was.  And, it took others of us who did leave, eventually, [a little longer] to realize how [we had been] manipulated.  We literally had to think Fred Newman day and night.  We had to dream Fred Newman--he had to be our whole being.

Pat:  That’s an interesting point.  For example, I was asked today, “don’t people who join cults just want to give the responsibility of their life to someone else?” And I answered that person, “no.”  The subtlety in my group [was how] they convinced us that we were indeed making our own decisions.  [But,] all those decisions that we supposedly made had to go under the guidelines of, and be in obedience to, the cult leader’s standards.  So, even though we thought we were making our own decisions--maybe we picked our own apartment or bought a car--it had to be what he liked.  It got so subtle, after a while, that we didn’t even know that we were not making our own decisions.

Monica:  It was very subtle in our group too because we thought we were choosing for ourselves.  The leader on his tapes would tell us, “this is your decision.  You can try this out and see if works for you, and if it doesn’t work, just use whatever works for you.  It’s your choice!” But, what they actually do is totally different from what they’re saying.

Marina:  And we were also “special,” right? And we were free to leave--anytime--except that we thought that life [would be] over if we walked out that door.  In fact, people in the IWP were told, literally, that I was dead--that the Marina Ortiz that you knew no longer existed.  I was in the dustbin of history.

Caller 5:  Fake religions, as I call them, are definitely the worst.  These people are literally, goons with guns--talk about devotion and obedience! There’s a big difference, they say, between kneeling down and kneeling over.  It’s amazing the techniques these people use to indoctrinate people; friendliness, sex, guilt, all kinds of wonderful things to get you to see their little organizations.

Caller 6:  I’m a person who was one of the leaders of the IWP ...

Marina:  So, you thought.

Caller 6:  So, I thought ...  particularly around publishing and the cultural work.  I just want to say to all the people who are still in the IWP--who [may be] listening right now--they need to reconsider what they’re doing.  They need to get the hell out of there!

Marina:  Listen, do you mind if I identify you?

Caller 6:  Yes, go right ahead.

Marina:  I believe this is Bill, Pleasant, right? Bill, you wrote a letter to Fred Newman recently that probably not a lot of people got to read.

Caller 6:  It’s been kept under cover, so people who are the rank-and-file members of the IWP have not been allowed to see that document.  I have a lot of problems with calling Newman a cultist, and we’ve had lots of arguments about that.  I think he’s a political imbecile.  I think he’s flop as a mass, political leader.  I also think he’s a sellout ...

Marina:  But, don’t forget this is someone who in 1974 went, temporarily--and brought his whole cadre [of 40 people] with him--under the auspices of Lyndon LaRouche.  And who, in 1992--after years of promoting a women-of-color, black-led party--turned right back around and endorsed the campaign of Ross Perot, which many people saw as conservative rather than progressive.

Caller 6:  Marina, you haven’t talked very much and I would like you to talk about your experience with Social Therapy, since Social Therapy seems to be the [key].

Marina:  Yes, I came in through Social Therapy [because] I just wanted to get my head together, raise my children and make some kind of contribution.  After a year of Social Therapy, I was asked to join the IWP, which I, of course, did, because by then I was so dependent on my therapist, and so trusted all these people that I had met and had surrounded my life with--to the point of abandoning all my old friends and my family.  For me it was very much that kind of experience.  A lot of people were encouraged, ordered, persuaded, to participate in this Social Therapy [although some, like yourself, did not participate.] But, for those ex-members who still want to argue or relate to this on a purely political level, you may not have had the same experience that we did--having been Social Therapy patients--but the same process was what was going in any meeting.  You had Fred Newman there--the authority figure--or whoever else was the so-called head of whatever department and the same kind of seductive/coercive manipulation went on.  You didn’t necessarily have to be a Social Therapy patient.

Caller 6:  I just want to say--particularly to the party members--it’s imperative for them to see that whether they’re political, or therapy patients, or cultists, that they’re being exploited.  They’re being used and they’re being used to the glory of one person--one businessman--and that guy is Fred Newman!

Caller 7:  As dangerous as these cults are, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re almost nothing compared to the mainstream religions, which have a 2,000 year head start ...

Marina:  Ok, so they’ve gotten that credibility, yes...

Caller 7:  [Mainstream religions] have been brainwashing children from birth, imposing on their credulity.  They’ve been demanding, threatening, frightening, coercing.  Mainstream religions, barring none, are rackets--fronts for big business interests.  Thus, the Catholic Church has tremendous multi-national [holdings], while the Jewish religion is a front for real estate interests.  [And, although] they pay no taxes, they nevertheless receive all kinds of city services!

Marina:  Well, I guess you could say the same about [the mass media.] Just take a look at television--sit down--and it’s amazing what you get!

Monica:  Well, one major difference is that Catholics, Jewish people--people in mainstream religions--don’t give up their identity.  They don’t give up their jobs.  They don’t give up their life to go following a charismatic leader.  And, most mainstream religions are up front about what they believe.  There’s no secret doctrine.

Lorna:  These groups are not on the outset deceptive and as totalitarian.  In [cults,] you are totally--every aspect of your life--is controlled by your leader.  And the most important relationship in your life is your relationship with your leader.  It’s more important than your relationship with your husband, your wife, your children, your parents--that is the first primary relationship.

Pat:  I was asked today, “What religion are you now?” And, honestly, I’m no religion, I have [what] I consider a personal relationship with God.  But if I go to an organized religion or a church--which I have done--and I hear, “you have to believe as we do or you are damned forever,” well, in my case, in my opinion, I’d leave because for me that’s a little too controlling.  I think in all religions there’s good and bad, but at least organized religions [are] out front with their beliefs.

Marina:  It’s also the argument that cult leaders will make, “well, everything’s brainwashing, society in general is brainwashing.”  I sort of tend to want to believe that, actually, and that it’s sort of what drives people to cults in the first place.  Lorna, can you talk about the after effects of getting out--what people have to deal with in terms of repairing their life.  Like Pat was saying, she has her own personal religion.  But, in some other cases, one might become very cynical about pursuing those beliefs--religious or political.

Lorna:  Initially, there might be such a sense that [your] faith has been broken because [people] come into these groups looking for a true religious [or political or therapeutic] experience and that ambition is manipulat[ed.] There’s a feeling that your idealism has been broken, so there’s tremendous disillusionment.  [And there’s] tremendous guilt because there’s so much phobia--fear induction--in these groups that terrible things will happen to you if leave so that, upon leaving, even if you get exit counseling--and exit counseling means learning about the deceptive and manipulative techniques that were used in your group--there still is a sense of fear because terrible things are predicted happening to you.  There also is the feeling that you’re a bad person, you haven’t measured up, [because] you’re outside of the group.

Marina:  Or, that you’re a traitor.  What I found [after leaving] the IWP was that I still would like to see a progressive political system in this country.  And, I find that I don’t have to give up the things that I came in there with--my political beliefs--or the things I choose to keep.  A lot of what [some of] these cults talk about sometimes seems to make sense.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be that it was a totally horrible experience.  Because what I found is that [the IWP] didn’t invent [the] concept [of independent politics] in the first place!

Monica:  This is a very important part of recovery--to not polarize against everything in the group because that’s just being a cultist.  It’s cultic thinking to think “us vs.  them,” “black vs.  white,” and “it’s all or nothing,” but to take from the experience what you do value [because] it’s one of the most important parts of recovery.  I feel very sad when I see an ex-cult member who is stuck in the cynicism, and the fear, and not getting past that--not being open again to having a spiritual life, to having something beyond the cult.  And, I feel that living well is the best revenge against the cult!

Marina:  Lorna, do you agree--that you can keep what it was you went in there for in the first place looking for?

Lorna:  Absolutely.  There might be a period of resistance to getting involved--going back to church, going to therapy--after the group, making a commitment to anything, actually.  People coming out of cults are terrified to commit themselves to anything because they feel like they’ve made this tremendous mistake in their lives.  But, this is a period of working these things out and the wonderful thing is, because people often are quite strong before they’ve gotten into cults, that they do work this through in a relatively short period of time and they do go on with their lives.

Marina:  [On the other hand,] in the case of psychotherapy cults, [I find that] if you had things you needed help with, that on top of having to deal with the after effects of having been in a cult, having been manipulated, having lost the ability to make decisions for yourself--that you also have to repair and look into what you went in there for in the first place.

Lorna:  [Yes, some] people go into these groups with the hope that they will repair whatever they’re struggling with and groups offer that hope to them.  That’s part of the appeal.  But, what happens is not only don’t they repair that, but they cause them to have to deal with a lot more.

Marina:  And, in the case of Social Therapy, you were made to feel that it wasn’t your fault--there wasn’t a problem with you, the problem was with society.  We live in a bad, corrupt society--it’s unfair, it’s unequal.  And so, if you wanted to cure yourself you had to first “cure” the world.  And, of course, that meant you joined the New Alliance Party, Castillo Cultural Center[, or the All Stars Talent Show.]

Caller 8:  I had the exact same experience that you just described with Social Therapy.  When I entered it, I was under the impression that that’s what I was going to get--psychotherapy.  I ultimately had the distinct honor of being kicked out of the group ...

Marina:  Oh, really? That’s amazing--you mean they actually didn’t want your money?

Caller 8:  But, now I know that it’s a distinction! Every week, a fight would break out with me at the [East Side] Center ...

Lorna:  They don’t like people that are too spirited against the group because it’s a bad influence on the group.

Marina:  Actually, Bill Pleasant--who called a while back--is actually one of the few people that did get kicked out of the Organization.  So, you’re not alone there!

Caller 9:  I haven’t heard anyone talk about [how] in the [New York] Post it was reported that on February 28--[the day] that the ATF [tried to] present[ the] warrant affidavit to get into the compound, that [someone else from] ATF was in Washington before a committee to apply for more money for ATF.  I think they’re getting about $300 million dollars now, and they wanted more.  They felt that if they could execute this [raid], they would [be given] more money.  But, I haven’t heard anyone talk about that--this is a political thing!

Caller 10:  Hi.  I think this is a very interesting subject.  It seems to me that the search for spiritual wisdom is a search for gold and that there is a lot of “fool’s gold,” so people do need to be careful.  At the same time, I’m concerned that there is the possibility that we can throw the baby out with the bathwater in the sense that one should not reach the conclusion that anyone who makes a life commitment to a demanding spiritual path should automatically be viewed as a cult member.

Pat:  No, not at all.  In fact, if you yourself, for example, make a decision--I don’t know what religion you are--to join a convent, to be a priest, that’s you’re decision.  But if someone interferes in your life while you are vulnerable and leads you deceptively--not giving you information as to what you’re getting involved in--and then lures you into giving up sometimes husbands, wives, kids, money, houses, for that, that deceptive tactics have been used on that particular recruitee from the cult.  Whereas in your case or in another person’s case, who says “well, I would like to join a convent, I would like to be a rabbi, a priest, may have made that decision themselves, so they are not viewed as being in a cult, so to speak.

Caller 10:  I think that under the two liberal definitions of what is a cult that are sometimes bandied about, one might end up condemning someone like the Dali Llama, who is, of course, in some strict definitional sense is a cult leader.  But he’s a very gentle man who does not coerce people--not that I’m involved with his group.  But, but he’s a good example of someone who under broad definitions might be condemned, but certainly should not be.

Marina:  Yes, I think that we have to continue this dialogue, continue this public awareness campaign, and take a look at these issues and these groups and talk more about this.  This is something that the media ignores only until we have these kinds of tragedies happening.  Nobody wants to talk about this, hear about this, you’re either a kook or not.  So, yes, I think we should continue to examine these things more closely.

Caller 11:  To talk about cults, you have to look at Christianity.  I think the Pope is the biggest cult leader in the world.  If you look at the last 500 years--during the slave trade, how the Pope signed off on that.  [And there’s] the present situation in the world in Latin America and Africa and in other countries where the Pope sits back and watches what’s going on.  I think the[se smaller groups are] secondary and incidental next to the major cults, which [are] the mo[re] established religions.

Lorna:  There is a distinction--in my [opinion] in terms of the deception used in these groups, and in terms of the [kind of] commitment that you [may] end up having to make--such a totalistic commitment to a charismatic leader [who] totally controls your life and that your relationship with this leader--man or woman--is central to your life and above your commitment to anyone else in your life, or anything else.

Marina:  It seems to always to back to that, though, what about the Catholic Church? What about the Jewish religions?

Lorna:  It seems to me that traditional religions encourage family life and family relationships--that’s my impression.  And, these [other] groups are out to diminish or destroy those relationships.  One of the callers said that in her group children were sent to schools automatically at a young age--away from [their] families.  And in others, there [may be] encouragement for sexual relationship with everyone or [the idea] that the children belong to everyone.  [Or] cult leaders [may] sexually abuse the children.  So [family] relationships are destroyed in these groups.

Marina:  It’s kind of hard for me, this one, because I have some very unpleasant memories about Catholic School.  But, how much of it goes back to my cult experience where I was told--the way I was drawn in closer to this clique--was that everything else was brainwashing--we [had been] bombarded with “bourgeois” ideology, which you could argue on a political level as real.  You could argue that maybe the Catholic Church has done these actions in Central and South America.

Caller 12:  I’m listening to the “expert” and your guests.  And, I [wonder], did she ever hear of Father [Bruce] Ritter [of Covenant House]? I can name a list of Catholic priests who are notorious, who are being sued ...

Lorna:  There are people who belong to various religions who have abused other people over the years.  But again, the distinction is the totalistic environment where one person--a charismatic leader--totally controls the people in the group, as in David Koresh’s situation, [where] deception and mind control techniques are used to recruit ...

Marina:  In the IWP, they [often pointed] to the political system, the corruption, which is, in many cases real--the inequities, the lack of justice in this country.  And so, these were things that you wanted to [change or].  But, in fact, the internal practices of these groups are [often] in complete contradiction to what the[y preach].  For those who sign a petition or make a contribution for democracy, for those who are invited to attend a bible study class, the further along you go in these groups the farther away you actually get from what attracted you in the first place.

Rhonda:  In the IWP, what we were fighting for on the outside was the New Alliance Party; fighting against racism, fighting for Black leadership.  [But,] when you get into the IWP structure, there [are] no people of color who are leaders, who can make decisions, [let alone] sign checks.

Monica:  Yes, [the public appeal and the internal practices are] totally different.  That’s why Scientology has celebrities who are the promoters--big promoters of it--and they don’t see what goes on, how what the staff members have to live [under] horrendous conditions.

For more information, treatment and other support, contact the Cult Hot Line and Clinic at (212) 632-4640.


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