Writer/director and all-around schlemiel, Woody Allen, famously quipped: “I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.”  Unlike Woody, clubs or groups have great appeal to many of us. We join groups to satisfy an emotional, spiritual or financial need; the more selective the group, the more appealing it becomes.

The Cult Culture

Of course, not all groups are cults but all cults start as gatherings of people with mutual goals. The word cult shares its Latin root with the commonly-used word, culture.   Although we tend to use the word cult to describe an unconventional religious group, it also means a “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work”. (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Using this definition, any group can become a cult.

Labeling a group as a cult is fairly subjective and often pejorative.  Those, who are members of groups that others may consider cults, tend not to consider their groups as such. Recruitment is important to sustain any system; calling one’s club or group a cult is a poor marketing strategy.

In the ‘70’s, cults were getting a lot of bad press.  The People’s Temple, led by Jim Jones (the cult known as “Jonestown”), was one of the most outrageous religious groups of that time, resulting in 900 people committing mass suicide by imbibing a flavored drink mix laced with poison. This tragedy gave new meaning to drinking Kool-Aid. Even today, one hears references to this horrific event as in, “I drank the Kool-Aid”, signifying one bought into an idea or a person.

A Slippery Slope

Having read of the dangers of cults, mostly religious in nature, I never understood how intelligent people could join a cult --until I was part of one.  In the 80’s, my then-husband and I went to couples counseling with a licensed psychologist, who had been recommended by friends.  After a number of sessions, the therapist suggested we join a therapy group that had a couple of openings. I had been a part of therapy groups before and generally thought and think groups are a great way to get and give support.  We are, after all, social animals.

Once we joined the group, we were encouraged to socialize with the members of our group and the four other groups the two therapists ran.  Parties were organized, sometimes by the therapists, sometimes by the group members.  Slowly, the social commitments escalated to the exclusion of those who weren’t in one of the groups run by the two therapists.

Upping the Ante

The therapists became involved in other activities and encouraged all their clients to get involved as well. This included multi-level marketing ventures and new-age spiritual organizations, all of which involved a significant financial investment.  The pressure to be involved was less than subtle.  Those who resisted were confronted; resisters were chastised for not being invested in their growth and holding others back from growing.

As the years rolled by, the leaders continued to up the ante. People who tried to leave were severely confronted. It was painful and scary.  Because the group members had replaced family attachments, leaving the group was like abandoning one’s family. Socializing with those who left was not condoned; defectors were shunned. 

Seven Years a Slave

I lasted seven years before getting the courage to leave.  I had many good times with the people in the group.  Although some were lost souls, many of them were intelligent, funny, well-educated and loving people: good people trapped in a bad system. 

I’m grateful to have had this opportunity to see how cults work.  I’ve come to understand that all cults have some common characteristics such as charismatic leaders, and increasing demands on members’ time and commitment (often financial in nature).  Pressure to stay in the group is another common feature of cults.  Cults often create an in-group and an out-group.  The in-group has the answers; the out-group is misguided in one way or another.

The Need to Belong

Cults appeal to us initially because of our need for belonging.  Few people join a group thinking they are getting involved in a cult.  They buy into a belief system and want to be part of a welcoming and supportive group. 

I recently spoke with a woman who had been part of a purely social cult.  The group members were the cool ones; those, who abandoned the group, were outcasts.  But not all cultish groups are bad.  Many provide support, hope and guidance to its members.

Check the Exits

The danger of cultish groups is when controlling its members becomes primary to its purpose.  The loss of freedom to disagree, question the authority figures and their beliefs, and freely leave the fold is damaging to all its members.

Although I understand and appreciate the benefits of collective energy, I stay awake and aware of the characteristics that define a cult when interacting in a group setting.  While enjoying being part of a group with common goals, I’m always checking for the nearest exit.