Would you give up your partner, family, friends, job, money and even your life to a total stranger? The evidence says you just might. Meet the men who are here to save you
What does your mind conjure up when you think of a cult? Chances are it's groups like the Manson Family, who slayed five people, including pregnant Sharon Tate, in 1969. Or Jim Jones's People's Temple, 913 members of which gulped down cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in 1978 because Jones told them to. Probably you think you would never be dumb enough to get caught up with that kind of thing.
Despite the lessons learnt in the past, and the free availability of data about destructive groups online, there are still thousands joining suspicious religious groups each year. According to the Cult Information Centre, a registered charity, more than 500 extremist groups operate in the UK today. And their potential targets are not impressionable teenagers, but those with average or above-average intelligence, good education and upper-income family backgrounds.
Conversely, a breed of 'deprogrammers' are on hand to help those who are tangled up with cults that bleed their followers financially and mentally. Deprogrammers claim to help cult members recognise that their actions, expressions and even physical appearance are not under their control, but their activities have themselves led to criticism and, in some cases, arrest and imprisonment.
The founding father of deprogramming was Ted Patrick. After his son enrolled with the Children of God sect in 1971, he made it a lifelong mission to combat cults and help people leave them. Patrick hit the headlines for his 'involuntary deprogramming' sessions, which involved midnight kidnappings. In 1980, he was convicted of kidnapping, conspiracy to kidnap and false imprisonment, and sentenced to one year in prison.
Following in Patrick's footsteps is Rick Ross. He claims his forerunner's actions, though extreme, were justified. "In the 70s, cult leaders would teach their people to run immediately," says Ross. "The minute the family said, 'Here is a professional I want you to talk with' they did not say 'Hello' or 'Goodbye', they ran. So Ted Patrick came up with the idea of holding them against their will, so he had the time he needed to discuss the families' concerns."
For 23 years Ross has been bombarded with calls from families desperate for help. "I get about 100 emails daily with people saying, 'I've got a problem, it's my mother, my father, my sister, my child or my friend.' Sometimes I can help them, but others are too far gone," says Ross.
Deprogramming involves presenting a person with information about the group they are in and making them aware of their families' feelings towards the group. "I come in as a total surprise," says Ross. "They have no clue I'm coming, because if they did they would consult the group and the person might go into hiding. I meet with the family to discuss every part of the intervention before I meet the individual. We start a discussion and I show them documents and footage about the group; this typically goes on for three to four days, then the person is free to either return to the group or leave."
On his website, Cultinformation.org.uk, Ross has a host of articles and news updates on cult activitites, as well as a group database. There are disturbing testimonies from cult casualties like Kristi La Mattery. She and her parents were members of the Children of God. Kristi alleges child abuse was rife, with "schedules posted on the wall of who would sleep with who." She claims her sisters were repeatedly abused by older men in the group, actively encouraged by group leader David Berg, who had some unconventional ideas about free love, rape and the link between sexuality and spirituality. Wife-swapping was also common, and Kristi's mother bore nine children by seven different men.
Also on Rick's website is the story of 53-year-old Lani Morris, who spent her last days in a caravan, paralysed down one side and coughing up thick black phlegm. She eventually died from pneumonia, severe dehydration, kidney failure and the effects of a severe stroke as a result of her initiation into the Breatharian cult, which denied her food or water for 21 days. Two group members were found guilty of manslaughter. The court heard excerpts from her journal documenting the days counting down to her own death. Her last entry was just a spiral.
It's cases like these that make Ross sure about what he's doing. Cults, he says, can ensnare anyone. "I'm working with adults who are older, I'm working with people in retirement and I'm working with children to get their parents out. It affects any age and anyone."
In the UK, Ian Haworth runs the Cult Information Centre in London. He knows first-hand the emotional and psychological effects of exiting a cult.
In August 1978, Ian was shopping in Toronto, Canada, minding his own business, when he was approached by a "very attractive" woman clutching a clipboard who persuaded him to attend a group meeting. He went along and found himself signing up for a quitting-smoking course. "It was just a Thursday night, Friday night and full-day Saturday and Sunday," says Ian. "By Sunday night I'd given them all the money I had, dedicated my life to it, and on the Monday morning I resigned from my job."
Ian saw for himself the ways people are controlled and broken down mentally using classic cult enduction techniques. "Breaks were every four or five hours. We were forbidden from going to the bathroom until they said so and they kept us up late, telling us staff had agreed to stay late as we were behind schedule. We were hypnotised 16 times over the four days, which was disguised as meditation. The more we were hypnotised the quicker and deeper we'd go into trance - you can be made to do anything with post-hypnotic suggestion, so it goes on and we were being broken down."
But then, Ian got a lucky break. A Toronto Star journalist had been investigating the group and wrote an article exposing the leaders as con artists. "Most cults programme you against the media within the first few days, but this hadn't happened with me," he explains. The media got in first with this exposť, and fortunately I read it, thinking it would be positive."
Ian contacted the journalist, who invited him to use his office to view the evidence he had collated. The truth crushed Ian: "I was absolutely devastated."
Ian tried to help other members. "I wanted to reach as many people as I could. I got six people out, but the seventh told the group what I was doing, then my name was mud. The recovery period is a time I wouldn't wish on anyone. You go through withdrawal symptoms, hallucinations, delusions, amnesia, suicidal tendencies, violent emotional outbursts... it's a tough old time."
Now, like Rick Ross, Ian helps others who went through the same experience with "exit-counselling", a less aggressive form of deprogramming. "I've talked to the family of someone who was an ex-member of a cult, and she was to testify for the government in a case at the high court against them. She was found dead, hanging from a road sign in Devon," he says. "I've personally had a call from a lad who wanted to get away from a very well-known and controversial group, and feared for his life. I talked it through with him and said, 'Do you want to meet?' Before we could, he was found with his throat cut from ear to ear."
In defence of more agressive deprogramming techniques, Rick Ross says it's sometimes a matter of life and death, "Do I think it was morally wrong for parents to do what they did to help save their children? Many lives were saved, literally saved."
Ross managed to deprogramme two members of the controversial Branch Davidian sect. In 1993, sect leader David Koresh led a standoff with federal agents lasting an incredible 51 days. It ended with the compound being torched by Koresh and his people. Around 80 Davidians died in the flames.
"Koresh wielded enormous power over his people. The Davidians did have a compound, they did stockpile weapons, there was sexual abuse of children and exploitation of women - it was a horrific cult. When I met with a young member before the raid in 1993 he was totally brainwashed. I met with him in California and it was a voluntary intervention. In the end he never went back and he survived as a result of that. In another case, the group was trying to encourage a young member to give up his insulin. I deprogrammed the boy, otherwise he would have died. It's not just a case of, 'Oh they believe differently.' That belief may include denial of medical assistance or medication. It can be very, very serious. Families are often fighting for the life of a relative who may die if they can't find a way out of the group."
There have been many extremist groups in recent years to rival the likes of the Manson Family. Between 1994 and 1997, the Solar Temple sect gained worldwide notoriety after 74 of its members were found dead in Canada, Switzerland and France.
In March 1997, the members of the Heaven's Gate cult killed themselves in order to board a passing comet and ascend to a higher plane. Some of the male victims had castrated themselves in the weeks and months leading up to the die-in.
The Aum Supreme Truth group, based in Japan, launched a fatal nerve-gas attack in 1995 on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 commuters. Shoko Asahara, the group's leader, promised his followers they would gain supernatural powers and built up an impressive stockpile of deadly chemicals in preparation for Armageddon. It was later revealed the group failed to deploy the gas properly during the underground attack and the death toll should have been in the thousands.
In 2000, the world's second-biggest ritual mass suicide took place in Kampala, Uganda. The Ten Commandments of God Doomsday cult huddled themselves in a church and chanted and sang before setting themselves on fire and burning to death. Earlier that week, the cult leader had ordered them to sell all their belongings and prepare for Heaven.
Rick Ross knows only too well the type of people who get sucked into cults. "Some people look for a classic cult who are waiting for the end of the world in their compound. You may think only a fool would get involved in these type of groups, but the people I work with are often highly educated and very sophisticated," he says. "For those who don't believe a person's ability to think can be removed, just think about those who blow themselves up on the London Tube or ride a plane into the World Trade Center chanting, 'God is great!'."