For the thirteen-year period between 1977 and 1990, I was a member of a personality cult. When people think of a cult, sharing living space in a specific geographic location comes to mind. Think, for example, of Jonestown in Guyana where 909 persons died by suicide. However, personality cults can function effectively from a distance, holding sway on members over a radius of hundreds of miles, especially given the internet. In the case of the personality cult of which I was involved there were both resident and non-resident members.
The setting for this cult was a religious community, but it really wasn’t a religious cult in the strict sense of the word. Actually, it was quite orthodox in its doctrine. Its daily worship service and hours of prayer followed a mainline denominational liturgy. That was part of what fooled me. Since I had always defined cults in religious terms by their errant doctrine, I missed the personality cult entirely.
Belonging to a personality cult was a valuable experience for me. It is one lens through which I can begin to understand our current environment. It is not the only lens. There are powerful political and economic forces at play. They are not fooled. In fact, they see exactly what is going on. They can use a personality cult to their own particular advantage in the pursuit of political or economic power, no matter the cost to communities and families, or the deterioration of the world our grandchildren will inherit.
A personality cult is formed around a leader or pair of leaders who implicitly or explicitly require loyalty to their authority. In my case, we took a vow to come under the spiritual authority of the leaders. Disloyalty was penalized in a number of ways ranging from public scolding to exclusion from meetings of elite members. People who decided to leave the community were set forth as negative examples in the teaching of the leaders. A member who was disloyal could go from being a darling to a pariah in a very short period of time. This creates a culture of fear and keeps people in line.
Of course, none of this is on display at the entry point of a personality cult. People are generally introduced to a personality cult through lavish displays of attention, beautiful buildings and grounds, or well-organized, impressive public events. In my case, all three were brought to bear. Musical concerts, plays, and banner-led parades, were the first point of contact in my particular cult experience. These provided both an air of excitement as well as a sense of normalcy; I saw many people just like me. This sets the hook.
Once you become a member of a personality cult, you discover a significant boundary separating the cult community from other parts of society. It is in the interest of cult leaders to entice you away from other relationships such as family members, friends, romantic interests, and even spouses in some cases. Alienation between those inside a personality cult, and those outside the cult strengthens the bond with the cult leader(s). The arguments that friends and family members have over holiday dinners are no accident. They separate connected people from one another which makes it easier for the personality cult to increase control.
In a personality cult, information obtained from outside the community is considered tainted, and, therefore, suspect. Community-wide reading assignments keep members of the cult focused on information consistent with the leader’s purposes. Cult members are regularly introduced to anecdotal, fringe, and non-scientific channels of information. Questioning this is disloyal. In my particular cult, challenging sources of information was referred to as “being in my head,” which was excoriated.
Thought control is a major component of a personality cult. People hearing this mistakenly think that cult members demonstrate robotic or zombie-like behavior. Instead, thought control is achieved by saturating a person’s thinking with an alternative view of life or a society in particular. In the personality cult I joined, members not only met weekly for teaching from the leaders that would often last for hours. They would listen to cassette tapes many hours a day as well. You could see members listening to portable tape recorders as they were going about daily activities such as gardening, cooking, cleaning, painting, repairing equipment, or simply relaxing. Today that can be achieved through heavy daily doses from outlets consistent with a leader’s purposes, or internet searches designed to communicate information that will reinforce a particular leader’s perspective. Today’s internet provides an ideal vehicle for developing personality cults.
It is important to point out that their submission to thought control does not mean that members of a personality cult are necessarily less intelligent. Many members of my personality cult were quite accomplished as authors, artists, and corporate executives. Subjects of mind control may, in fact, be extremely intelligent, and adept at citing material garnered from months of research on the internet. However, their research has led them to drill down deeper and deeper into veins of information that close them off to broader inquiry. The assertions of a single leader(s) in a personality cult and their supporters, can outweigh hundreds of other sources of information.
Personality cults tend to view the external world as dangerous, and tap into the fear and anger of members. As a result, they often engage members in elaborate preparations for some imminent disaster. In my particular cult, leaders foresaw a coming famine. Members spent tens of thousands of dollars stocking up on specialty dried food developed with a shelf life of a decade or more. The basements of nearly every home were stocked with large quantities of these boxes covered with plastic film.
As a result of the control and distortion of information in a personality cult, it is nearly impossible to have a rational conversation between a person in the cult and a person outside the cult. In addition, many of the normal sources of authority in society, legal, institutional, educational, religious, and cultural have been weakened in a personality cult and replaced by the authority of the cult leader(s).
It goes without saying that those who belong to a personality cult do not recognize that they are in a personality cult. They believe that they have found a truth that has escaped everyone else. They will tell you, and sincerely believe, that they are properly related to the leader(s) and not being controlled. They will be offended by any suggestions otherwise and will rise to defend the leader(s) even in the face of the most outrageous behaviors. And while folks in personality cults are not bad people, they are likely to see those who disagree not simply as folks of a different opinion, but people who are morally asleep and in need of awakening, or even evil itself.
While I was a member, my personality cult was investigated several times by mainline denominational bodies who issued serious warnings to those considering membership. There were also exposés by the local news media. These only served to make me more defensive. All mainline and mainstream sources of information are judged in light of a single personality, and believed to be tainted by an explicit or implicit conspiracy.
Another aspect of personality cults is that they tend to believe that their engagement in the cult will protect them from maladies affecting others in society who do not have the benefit of their information for foresight. This can include protection from contagious diseases, cancer, or developmental disorders, but also advance warning of social catastrophes which allows the cult to fortify themselves in advance. The personality cult I was connected to evidenced both.
I have struggled over the last several years trying to understand the national landscape from a political or rational perspective. This has only left me confused and frustrated. I think there are a number of valid lenses through which we can view our current situation, but I now believe we are dealing with a personality cult. Having been a member of a personality cult, I realize that it is futile to try to reason with those who have been snared by them.
My escape was the result of four factors.
The first was geographic distance. Moving further away from the community to take another job cut down the degree of exclusivity of communication with other cult members, and new relationships diluted the toxicity of the cult.
Second was the expansion of my information sources. I started reading books, journals, and articles outside the cult’s prescribed channels.
Third, I began to engage in a critique of the cult leader’s agenda in light of what I was learning outside the cult. This felt extremely disloyal at first, and I paid a heavy price for my own thinking (exile), but gradually I began to trust my ability to weigh multiple sources and come to my own conclusions.
Finally, I realized that I had a great deal of fear and anger from my childhood, as well as a search for approval, that was driving my involvement in the cult. By dealing with those gut level emotions through other means, I became happier and less susceptible to the ways that personality cults hook people.
Perhaps another factor was simply the passage of time. Research suggests that the average length of cult membership is about nine years, and it is reasonable to assume a similar duration for personality cults. Perhaps the best approach for those of us concerned about members of psychological cults is to simply remain an informed, patient, consistent presence over the long term.
I am not sure how any of these paths of escape apply today. The emergence of the internet has made geographic distance irrelevant. That same internet tends to lead people to drill down deeper and deeper into sources that can reinforce a cult personality rather than confront him or her. And the political pressure placed on individuals to remain loyal or lose their careers and status, even to the point of receiving death threats, is enormous.
Nonetheless, it is now clear to me that we are dealing with something that transcends reason, while appearing, in the minds of believers to be quite reasonable. At a minimum, we need to make a greater effort in society to understand personality cults, and, hopefully, protect ourselves and our loved ones from their more corrosive effects.
Fe Anam Avis
November 23rd, 2020