Inside the mind of a cult member, according to a professional deprogrammer

There are three main elements to any cult and Rick Ross has seen their destructive potential up close and personal., Australia/March 19, 2018

By Royce Wilson

What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “cult”?

Is it mysterious dark rituals and people in robes trying to summon a cosmic entity? Or perhaps you’re thinking of all those quirky cool movies Des Mangan used to introduce on late night SBS TV years ago when films weren’t considered softcore porn if they had subtitles?

More likely, however, you’re thinking of the religious type of cult, which at its extreme can lead to things like the Jonestown massacre or the Branch Davidian shootout with the FBI at Waco.

If you’re a gamer, there’s a pretty good chance you’re now thinking about the antagonists in Ubisoft’s upcoming adventure Far Cry 5 — the Project At Eden’s Gate doomsday cult, led by the enigmatic Father Joseph Seed.

But how realistic is the Eden’s Gate cult? And why do people get involved with destructive cults in the first place?

Rick Ross is an internationally renowned expert on cults and deprogramming, having founded the Cult Education Institute and performed more than 500 interventions to get people out of destructive cults.

Mr Ross spoke to journalists at a recent Far Cry 5 event organised by Ubisoft in Paris, explaining a cult had three elements — starting with an absolute authoritarian leader that is the defining element and driving force of the group, much like the game’s character Father Joseph Seed.

“Number two: That the group has a process of indoctrination using techniques of coercive persuasion to break people down to gain undue influence,” he said.

“And then number three: A destructive cult is destructive in varying degrees, and of course in the case of Eden’s Gate you see the worst example. So you take those three core criteria and you can apply it to any group which is defined as a destructive cult — not by their beliefs, but by their behaviour.”

Mr Ross said the important thing to understand was no-one deliberately joined a destructive cult like Eden’s Gate, because the groups went out of their way to avoid letting people discover their destructive goals.

“The group portrays itself in a very positive light as fulfilling some mission or higher purpose and the people that join may join because they know someone in the group, they have a family member that’s in the group, a friend, they may have a romantic interest in the group, or they may just be taken in by the idea that this is a good group,” he said.

“The group certainly is going to put its best face forward in recruitment and you’re not going to find out the nasty details until later.”

Mr Ross said there was no ‘typical’ person who ended up joining a cult, either.

“I’ve never been able to establish a profile that is consistent and there has been a lot of research done and no one has been able to establish such a profile,” he said.

“Instead it seems to be by chance, it can be you’re walking on a college campus, you’re in a mall, you’re somewhere where a recruiter comes up,” he said.

He gave an example of two Australian women he got out of a cult, who had been recruited with the story the cult was a modelling agency looking for models.

“One of the women looked like a model the other one did not but she probably thought, ‘Okay, I’d like to be a model, and how nice of you to want to recruit me’.

“She had no idea that there was any kind of group organisation that could be conceivably called a cult, in fact even though it’s a religiously-based cult they never even mentioned religion at all in the initial contact,” he said.

Mr Ross said subjects were free to leave his interventions at any time and when it came to getting people out of cults, his enemy and friend was time, with most of his approximately 25 per cent failure rate being from people who walked out of the intervention in the first day or so.

“The more time I have the more likely I am to be successful; the less time I have the less likely,” he said.

“It’s all about the family and typically I will do a day of preparation with the family ... so that everyone is on the same page, and they all understand that what we’re there to do and what their roles are, and particularly to be persuasive that their loved one not leave and listen.

“That’s all you’re really asking from someone in an intervention — to be open to listen.

There are four things he goes through in an intervention.

“One is defining a destructive cult. Two is describing in detail what is [coercive] persuasion ... what are the influence techniques, or what you would call cult brainwashing. Number three, what do I know about this group though research and an investigation you might not know, that you probably should know if you’re going to continue (being a member). And then number four, why did your family do this? Why are they so worried about you, why is your spouse, your brother, your mother, your father worried about you?”

Mr Ross said the critical difference between a cult and a religion was “an absolute authoritarian leader that is the defining element of the group and the driving force”.

“You have to ask yourself — if this leader leaves tomorrow where is the group at? Does the group have a life or does it collapse?,” he said.

“In the groups that I deal with, if the leader walks away the group collapses. If you look at Eden’s Gate, if Joseph Seed looks at (family members and acolytes) Faith and Jacob and John and says, ‘You know what, I’m outta here’, are they going to be able to keep it going? Probably not, it’s going to collapse, so that’s the difference.”

While the Eden’s Gate cult in Far Cry 5 is clearly fictional, Mr Ross said it was not entirely without historical precedent either, noting groups such as Colonia Dignidad in Chile during the Pinochet years amassed a truly vast quantity of weapons, and the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult — who launched a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system — and reportedly tried to create an atomic bomb.

“Have there been groups that have been weaponised and have created arsenals and so forth? Yes. Have there been groups with compounds in the US that have done that? Yes. Have they had face-offs with authorities? Yes. Have federal marshals gone in? Yes,” Mr Ross said.

“So what you see in Far Cry 5 is a composite. It’s a fictional group, a fictional character, but derived from real history, real historical events to make it vividly real.”

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