Along with serial killers and Cold War conspiracy theories, few topics reliably elicit as much morbid fascination as cults. There’s a near compulsive readability to the Wikipedia entries for Jonestown, the Manson Family, and the Branch Davidians that, as far as midterm procrastination is concerned, can’t be substituted for more wholesome online histories. While their stories each combine a measure of conspiracy and murder, part of the allure of researching cults is the processes of indoctrination their members undergo. The actions of cult members make headlines, but the motivations behind joining such groups remain obscure.
If loneliness constitutes vulnerability to cults, university campuses are by no means safe havens from feelings of isolation. And of course, if one considers the average McGill student obtaining a vague degree en route to a vague future occupation, there’s something undeniably fascinating about the clarity of purpose exhibited by cult members.
In spite of these potential draws, cults are surrounded by a remarkably-durable mythos. The popular idea of a cult—a group of mesmerized followers, preyed upon by a preternaturally-persuasive leader—masks an even more uncomfortable reality: It doesn’t require ‘brainwashing’ for people to act in ways that outsiders find unthinkable.
Among the most unsettling cult histories bound for cable miniseries fame is that of the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic Christian group led by David Koresh, whose two-month standoff with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in 1993 was a flashpoint for cults’ prominent bearing in North American consciousness. The violent affair began with the ATF’s attempted execution of a search warrant at the Mount Carmel Centre ranch on Feb. 28. It remains unknown which side fired the first shot, but on Apr. 19, 50 days after the standoff began, the ATF made their final assault. Seventy-two Branch Davidians died in the chaos that ensued, including Koresh.
Though the Branch Davidians are a more recent example, no group has contributed more to the popular imagination of cults than Peoples Temple and its leader, Jim Jones. Jones started Peoples Temple in 1955, preaching an eccentric blend of pentecostal Christianity and Marxism. In 1977, facing allegations of physical abuse and fraud, Jones and several hundred Peoples Temple members fled the United States to establish a community in Guyana. When California Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in 1978 to investigate allegations of abuse, Jones ordered his security forces to kill Ryan before instructing the Temple’s members to commit mass suicide. Armed guards distributed fruit juice spiked with cyanide. Most members drank it. On Nov. 18, 1978, 909 people died, the highest single-day death toll for Americans until Sept. 11, 2001.
Decades before the Branch Davidians, the 909 deaths in Guyana horrified the United States. It was not just the huge death toll that made the Jonestown massacre so chilling; that one man could convince hundreds to commit suicide was unfathomable. The events stoked a prevalent Cold War anxiety: Mind control.
In the paranoid Cold War era, the idea of villainous Marxists brainwashing Americans was stewing in pop culture well before Jonestown. Over the course of the Korean War, thousands of American prisoners of war petitioned the government to cease the conflict, and 23 even refused repatriation. The appeal of communism eluded American officials, and a series of outlandish confessions obtained from captured American soldiers spurred suspicion of the North Koreans’ use of mind control tactics. The growing hysteria provided the fuel for the horrific MKUltra experiments that were conducted at McGill and elsewhere. Deviations from American ideological norms were censored at an unprecedented rate in the 20th century, and the politics of paranoia provided the basis for the attempted development of real psychological warfare.
The appeal of explaining subversive behaviour through brainwashing is that it draws a clear line between the ‘afflicted’ and everyday individuals, refuting the implication that we, in our normal mental states, are vulnerable to exploitation. The mind control explanation for cult behaviour risks obscuring the more pressing question of what these groups provide their members, as well as the power of less fantastical mechanisms of behaviour-shifting. According to Mike Kropveld, director of Info-Cult, sensational explanations like mind control underestimate the power of simple social pressure. Kropveld spoke with The McGill Tribune in Info-Cult’s office, located in Montreal’s Mile End.
“Some people like this brainwashing imagery, just because it tends to convey a simplistic formula,” Kropveld said. “At the same time, for some people, it also gives them the sense that ‘I’m not really responsible, I was brainwashed.’ Now what some people [think is] going on are ‘techniques of influence,’ which I lean toward, as well as socialization. I think sometimes [these are] not given credence, just because they don’t have that magical energy.”
Founded nearly 40 years ago, Kropveld’s group researches alleged cults—though Kropveld has reservations about the word given the gravity of its connotations and its broad scope of definition—and provides support services to former members. In 1980, students from Hillel McGill founded Cult Project, Info-Cult’s predecessing group, in response to the Jonestown massacre. It set out with the purpose of investigating young people’s specific susceptibility to groups like Jones’. Today, it is the only group of its kind in Canada.
Socialization—the process by which new members change their behaviour to conform to the norms of a group—can account for much of how group membership affects individual behaviour. Members adopt new ways of seeing the world by osmosis, and while it’s not the mind control seen in movies like The Manchurian Candidate or Zoolander, it can shape and limit how members make life decisions.
“[Socialization] is different,” Kropveld said. “The group doesn’t force you, it leads you […] down a certain path, but they’re only giving you one path to walk down. You’ve got choices, but you don’t have many options.”
The Branch Davidian tragedy at Waco points to a failure of the brainwashing theory for addressing the realities of extremist groups. Rick Ross, the self-described ‘cult expert’ and ‘deprogrammer’ consulted by the FBI during the siege, conceived of Koresh’s followers as victims of mental capture, rather than true believers in Koresh’s apocalyptic prophecies. Ross suggested that the FBI aggressively criticize Koresh’s personal shortcomings to break his brainwashing spell over his followers, which would lead the Davidians to surrender. The tactic proved totally ineffective. Ross failed to consider that the group, abusive as it was to many members, for others, fulfilled fundamental emotional needs; or that, even after the supposed end to the Cold War two years prior, his apocalyptic readings of the Bible might be intellectually persuasive. Members of the group were not forced or tricked into believing Koresh’s radical, apocalyptic reading of Christianity; they were drawn to it.
“The need to believe and the need to belong in something are very important, which can lead some people to get involved in groups that [have…] very closed and very extreme, simplistic views of the world and how people should be treated,” Kropveld said.
The needs to believe and belong can also inform an understanding of Peoples Temple. Racial segregation shut Black Americans out of civic life in late-‘50s Indiana. Jones was radically anti-racist for his time, railing against the evils of Jim Crow from the pulpit. He heavily recruited from Indianapolis’ black community and, importantly, he knew how to talk to politicians.
“White leaders continued agreeing to meet whenever black ministers asked, and, afterward, nothing changed—except when Jim Jones was involved,” Jeff Guinn wrote in his nonfiction account of the Peoples Temple, The Road to Jonestown. “White officials came to Peoples Temple and followed through on promises made there about minor issues like pothole repair or more up-to-date school textbooks, perhaps, but such things were significant compared to the complete failure of black ministers to get anything at all for their congregants [….] Far from mistrusting [Jones] because of his race, they considered it an advantage. He preached like a black man and got things done like a white one.”
Jones wasn’t just a charismatic leader or a con man—he provided meaningful support for people with legitimate needs. This was the key to his success: Jones identified a vulnerability and exploited it to his own ends. Imagining members as brainwashed automatons glosses over the fundamental reasons why groups like Peoples Temple exist.
CBC Radio One’s podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM explores the thorny nuances of why people join such groups. The series focuses on Sarah Edmondson, a former member of the self-help group and alleged sex-cult NXIVM. The group made headlines last year when The New York Times published an interview with Edmondson in which she recounted her experiences as a high-level NXIVM member. She was one of a select few NXIVM members invited to join Dominus Obsequious Sororium// (DOS), an all-female subgroup within NXIVM, whose rituals involved being branded with NXIVM founder Keith Raniere’s initials. Uncover follows Edmondson’s process of leaving the group behind, both physically and psychologically.
Josh Bloch, the show’s host, spoke to the Tribune about the fraught nature of ascribing blame in NXIVM’s nebulous and unusual world.
“It was really frustrating how people would jump to conclusions about people’s intentions or roles in the group,” Bloch said. “As a team, we would certainly debate stuff, change our minds, and learn new information [that] would take us off on a whole other course [….] If everything was too cut-and-dry, it might lack the nuance and the complexity that’s necessary when you’re doing a deep dive and a deep investigation. You should end up in messy places.”
Brainwashing explanations lack this nuanced approach. CBC’s podcast looks past the worn stereotype of cult members as glassy-eyed robots: When Edmondson discovered NXIVM, she was a motivated go-getter working as an actress in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Uncover dives into what NXIVM provided for Edmondson. NXIVM preached self-improvement as a vehicle to change the world. If their message reached a critical mass of followers, they claimed, it could usher in a new era of enlightened, compassionate thought.
“When there’s chaos and you feel like you want to make the world a better place, when somebody offers you that opportunity, it makes sense,” Kathleen Goldhar, one of the show’s producers, said in an interview with the Tribune. “It’s the same reason [why] I give to the women’s shelter in my community, because I want to do something for a cause that I feel like matters. They found people [for whom] that’s a high priority, and they convinced them that trickle-down humanitarianism made sense.”
The mixture of noble goals and life-shattering results makes Edmondson’s culpability a knotty issue. She was a high-ranking member, and a true believer in NXIVM. Like Bloch, Goldhar emphasized the importance of avoiding any pretenses to certainty. People and their motivations are too complex to draw any bright lines between victim and perpetrator.
“The truth is, we never came to any final decisions about anybody. I never figured out Sarah fully [and] I never figured out Keith fully,” said Goldhar. “I think what I’ve figured out [is that] the reason [that] cults exist is the reason that religion exists, that groups exist, that political parties exist. It’s because we want to belong, and it’s just a stronger, more manipulative way of making people feel like they belong.”
For members, cults seem to fill the gaps of normative membership in society. Leaders prey upon the discontent and the lonely and provide them with a sense of belonging. As the overflowing registry at McGill Mental Health can testify, the typical McGill student is no stranger to feelings of displeasure and alienation. In providing a reassuring sense of community and purpose, cults hold a specific appeal for young adults. There are serious problems in the systems we inhabit, and, though enrolling in a cult is frequently a path to exploitation, examining their appeal can help illuminate these existing problems. In almost every case, however, these groups provide something lacking from conventional societal membership. Othering cult members as ‘brainwashed’ neglects to consider what exactly these groups are providing that society isn’t. As far as membership is concerned, Kropveld holds one hard and fast rule:
“Beware of anyone with easy answers.”