Hollywood actress Allison Mack is set to stand trial for her role in a sinister cult that brands its members and turns them into ‘sex slaves’. Although its attempts to recruit Emma Watson and Kelly Clarkson failed, many smart, successful women have fallen under the spell of NXIVM and its founder Keith Raniere. And bizarrely, this is not a new phenomenon. Cults have been operating in this way for decades – and they don’t necessarily prey on the vulnerable. As Jane Mulkerrins discovers, any one of us could be drawn into their malevolent web.
Helen Zuman was 22 years old and an idealistic Harvard University graduate when she joined Zendik Farm, a community in North Carolina that focused on the arts and the environment. Most of the 55 members at the time were in their 20s and 30s, too, and seemed, she says, ‘so healthy and vibrant, and knew what they wanted in life’.
An aspiring writer, Helen was keen to develop her craft at the farm. ‘But when I got there, I was expected to do physical work all the time. Art was reserved for people who were higher up the food chain, and it was incredibly hierarchical,’ she says.
he child of divorced parents and inexperienced in relationships, she was drawn to the strict dating practices at the farm: dates had to be requested through an administrator, who would issue a written permission slip if the request was approved. ‘But each affidavit was for one night only. And anyone who formed a long-term relationship could expect it to be broken up,’ Helen says.
The person controlling the relationships was Arol Wulf (who died in 2012), then the recent widow of Wulf Zendik, the poet and bohemian environmentalist who had founded the farm in the 1960s. According to Helen – who joined six months after he died – Zendik reportedly had sexual relationships with every female member of the group.
During the first few months, Helen was allowed outside the farm – into the ‘death-culture’, as the rest of the world was termed by the group – to visit her mother, but after that she was discouraged from doing so, and her contact with friends and family dwindled.
After five years at the farm, in 2004, she was told she was ‘failing’ at her duties selling T-shirts, bumper stickers and the community-produced magazine, and was asked to leave. Members were kicked out sporadically, she says, to maintain cohesion and remind everyone that their position was tenuous.
‘I was terrified about leaving, and felt as though I was being cut off from my tribe. I had been indoctrinated to feel that I wouldn’t survive out there, and would suffer “soul-death”,’ she says.
Feeling displaced and rootless, Helen travelled nonstop in a bid to process her experiences. It was only a year later, after a friend gave her a book – Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan – that she saw Zendik Farm for what it was: a cult. Now 41, she has written her own book about her experiences, Mating In Captivity.
Cults have long made headlines, from the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, South America, in 1978, in which 909 followers of Jim JonesHeaven's Gate committed suicide by drinking fruit punch laced with cyanide, to the Branch Davidians, around 80 of whom died, along with leader David Koresh, after a 51-day siege near Waco, Texas, in 1993.
Stories usually emerge full of lurid details of bizarre practices and quasi-religious rituals, led by powerful, charismatic leaders, such as Charles Manson, who incited his acolytes to commit murder on his behalf – most notably killing the actress Sharon Tate in Los Angeles in 1969.
In recent months, a formerly little-known group called NXIVM (pronounced Nexium) has become news thanks, in part, to the high profile of one of its alleged ‘lieutenants’, the 35-year-old Hollywood actress Allison Mack, star of the television series Smallville.
Along with NXIVM’s reported leader Keith Raniere, 57, Mack has been charged with sex trafficking, sex-trafficking conspiracy and forced-labour conspiracy for her involvement in the alleged ‘sex cult’. Mack is believed to have recruited female followers for Raniere. Their trial is set to begin on 1 October.
NXIVM purports to be a self-help organisation, with centres in the US, Mexico, Canada and South America, offering personal and professional development courses. But, it has been alleged in court documents, Raniere created a secret society within the organisation called DOS, an acronym for the Latin phrase dominus obsequious sororium, which roughly translates as ‘master of the obedient female companions’.
According to former members of the cult, including the Canadian actress Sarah Edmondson, ‘slaves’ were branded with a cauterising pen (a touch that Mack recently told the New York Times was her idea: ‘I was, like, “I have two tattoos and they mean nothing”’, so she wanted to do something more extreme) and forced to have sex with Raniere.
The group – whose members still reportedly include India Oxenberg, the daughter of former Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, and Clare and Sara Bronfman, the heiress daughters of US billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr (and Nigel Havers’s stepdaughters) – also allegedly attempted to involve actresses Emma Watson and Goldie Hawn, and the singer Kelly Clarkson.
‘There is a fundamental desire when we see strange human behaviour [such as successful, wealthy women joining a bizarre and apparently brutal ‘sex cult’] to say, “What was wrong with that person, that they got involved in that situation?”’ says cult expert and psychologist Dr Alexandra Stein, honorary fellow of Birkbeck College, London.
It’s an approach she believes is deeply flawed. ‘This is something that can happen to any of us,’ she argues, especially for people in a ‘normal life blip. Perhaps you’ve recently gone to or left university, or you’ve just broken up with your boyfriend or had a bereavement. It has changed your circumstances and made you more open to a new social network or a different experience.’ It is, she says, a ‘situational vulnerability’ that leaves people susceptible to the attentions and influences of a cult, not a ‘personality vulnerability’.
She speaks from experience. For ten years, Stein was herself a member of a cult. The O, a Marxist group based in Minneapolis, isolated her from friends and family, placed her in an arranged marriage and forced her to work punishing hours in a bakery, alongside her primary job as a computer integrator.
‘I wasn’t recruited because I was weak or stupid,’ she says. ‘I was a strong, independent woman. I had moved from the UK to the US on my own at 18. I was very politically active and I wanted to do something to change the world. I believed we were working to bring about a radical, left-wing revolution. But it wasn’t what I thought it was.’
She finally left The O when she was 36. ‘I had a lot of grieving to do over those lost years,’ she says. Now 63, she has dedicated her career to helping others understand cults, how they operate and why they are so seductive.
There are, Stein says, hundreds of thousands of cults in operation at any time, from quasi-religious to business, personal-development to yoga. But if cults are everywhere and we are all susceptible, how can we spot one?
For Stein, there are five key components that make up a cult. First, she says, the leader or leaders are authoritarian. ‘They are charismatic bullies, generally some form of psychopath or with an extreme form of narcissistic personality disorder.’ Donald Trump, she believes, conducts his presidency like a cult leader – using bullying, coercive tactics, deriding any critics or opponents – as does Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea.
The true motivations of a cult leader, Stein admits, are often hard to identify. ‘The messiah complex is as good an explanation as any,’ she says. ‘But some of them know exactly what they are doing, such as L Ron Hubbard [the founder of the Church of Scientology], who famously said: “If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”’
Second, she says: ‘The structure is isolating – socially and emotionally as well as physically – and steeply hierarchical.’ Cults need not have a physical compound; NXIVM, for example, does not – its members continue to live and work in their own homes and jobs. Within the hierarchy, there is often a ‘lieutenant layer’, as is also the case with NXIVM. ‘But a lieutenant’s position is tenuous. They can get promoted and demoted very readily. The leader does not want them becoming too powerful, so has to keep them in their place.’
Third, there is an ideology or belief system. ‘The content of the belief system doesn’t matter as much as the form,’ she says. ‘The ideology of a cult claims to explain everything, is controlled by the leader and it disables your critical thinking.’
This is done, she says, with the use of the fourth ingredient: coercive control. It is defined as ‘a strategic course of behaviour’ (aka brainwashing), often involving manipulation and humiliation, in order to persuade others to do your bidding.
‘The aim is to isolate you and trap you in that isolation,’ says Stein. ‘They create chronic stress, which causes trauma. Trauma leads to dissociation, a state in which you cannot think about your own feelings. In that gap, the cult can insert its ideology and tell you what you are feeling.’ This is all done, she says, by wearing members down. ‘You don’t have any resources left to step away from it and to have a good think about your involvement. When people do get that space, they often get out.’
That was certainly the case for Aideen T Finnola, who was raised in a US cult, which she cannot name for legal reasons, from the age of eight. An evangelical, fundamentalist and charismatic Christian cult, hierarchical and strictly patriarchal, women were not allowed to work, birth control was banned and men dictated their wives’ schedules. ‘If anything deviated from their routine in a day, women would have to ask their husband’s permission to change it,’ says Aideen, now 50 and a life coach.
Her parents allowed her to go to a secular Ivy League university, where four years of education finally enabled her to leave. ‘I realised the moral code I was raised with was not a universal truth. I had grown too much and could not fit myself back into that structure and religion.’ She was no longer one of what Stein defines as a cult’s fifth component: ‘Exploitable, controllable followers, who will do what the leader says, even though it may be at a great cost to themselves.’
Stein believes terrorist organisations to be cults, too, an idea that is the focus of her book Terror, Love and Brainwashing. ‘Recruiting people into something that doesn’t serve their own interests – such as becoming a suicide bomber – is the same process of grooming and brainwashing that we see in cults,’ she says.
She also believes there’s a strong link between cults and domestic violence, and is lobbying for the UK law on coercion or controlling behaviour, which became a criminal offence in 2015, to be extended from only domestic and intimate relationships to include groups, too. As she points out, ‘With cults, once they have isolated you from friends and family, the group becomes your primary relationship, replacing all pre-existing ones.’
But we urgently need to stop blaming victims, she says, pointing to the Me Too movement as a parallel. ‘All the women we now know have been victims of abuse in Hollywood, did every one of them have a particular personality type? Was there something lacking in them all?’ she asks. ‘They were ashamed and embarrassed and frightened to speak up; the victims of cults are, too. Me Too is trying to destigmatise being a victim of sexual abuse and harassment; we need to do the same for victims of cults.’
South Korean leader Sun Myung Moon’s cult, The Unification Church (nicknamed The Moonies), was founded in 1954 but gained notoriety in the 1970s and 1980s for holding mass weddings of thousands of strangers marrying for their faith.
Aravindan Balakrishnan led the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought in Lambeth, London, from 1975 to 2013. He told his followers he had God-like powers. He is currently in jail for child cruelty, false imprisonment and rape.
Jim Jones founded the Peoples Temple in Indiana in 1955. He later relocated to Jonestown in Guyana, where 909 of his followers – including 279 children – died after drinking cyanide-laced punch in a horrifying mass murder/suicide.
In 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, founded in 1974 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, took their own lives, believing their souls would go to a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
Stories of sexual abuse and prostitution (women ‘flirty fishing’ for recruits by sleeping with people) have long dogged The Family International. It was founded in 1968 by the late David Berg and was formerly known as the Children of God.
Charles Manson, the ex-convict leader of the California commune cult the Manson Family, inspired his followers to commit nine murders in 1969, including the brutal slaughter of pregnant actress Sharon Tate.
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