We often think of cults as preying on the vulnerable, but a whole host of intelligent women have joined them in the past. Here, one writer shares the story of how her mother ended up leaving university to join a cult.
My mum decided in just five hours to join a cult.
She was studying to be a psychologist at the time. The magnitude of this only really hit me years after I escaped the Children of God, the group that she raised me and my 11 siblings in. How did this intelligent woman, with a high IQ and her whole future ahead of her, join a group led by a sexually depraved mad man?
Our obsession with cults is on the rise. New series, podcasts and dramatisations are released almost daily and fed to audiences with a rapidity that almost satisfies our hunger for the sensational. I’ve spent many a night stuffing my face with salty snacks watching the Oshoites in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country cathartically bliss out on screen (looking high AF) as if they are at a rave with a dress code of ‘simply red’. Or quaffing a bottle of wine while a reenactment of the last days of the Jonestown massacre plays out in a documentary on my laptop, eyes glued, headphones on, safely in bed, miles (and years) away from where this horrific event took place. Like true crime, we seem to be addicted to the weird, dangerous, fantastical and downright bonkers world of new religious movements.
But are cults to be romanticized or feared? And are some women closer to joining a cult than we think?
My mother was just 19 when she stepped into the Children of God HQ in 1972. There on a rescue mission, she heard that her ‘friend from university’ (my dad) had been ‘brainwashed by a cult’. She walked into a huge industrial factory in Bromley, bursting with young radical hippies who hugged and welcomed her ‘home’. As children, we would gather around as she would tell this story – face beaming, eyes wet with joy – recounting the ‘best day of her life’. The day she gave up her friends, two brothers, parents, career trajectory and her dreams.
My mum was a straight-A student, a champion fencer, the kind of girl that I can imagine having a top drawer exploding with colourful badges she’d collected for achievements. She had been a valedictorian, the first ever woman to receive a scholarship to her university. Not the kind of woman who joins a cult. But she did. And she stayed.
And she is not alone. If we look at well-known cults, there is evidence of smart women within them. Most people won’t know who these women are, as they are not featured on the enticing covers we scroll through on Netflix. Jane Stork from the Osho movement was a university graduate. Ma Anand Sheela, an Osho movement spokesperson, studied in NYC. In fact, a fifth of the followers in the Osho community had master’s degrees. NXIVM had equestrian grand prix winner Clare Bronfman; Sarah Edmondson was a graduate, actor and playwright; while Nancy Salzman was a nurse.
But how did softly spoken Jane Stork go from being a university student to a cult assassin who was subsequently convicted of attempted murder? How did Sheela go from the halls of higher education in NYC to conspiring in a bioterror attack that poisoned 751 people? How did Clare Bronfman go from champion equestrian to being indicted on sex trafficking charges? And how did my mother go from studying psychology to becoming the public face of a group that created manuals on how to sexually abuse children?
Now I am not saying that all cults are packed full of Mensa members, but a common misconception is that cult followers are by and large vulnerable: misfits, addicts, ‘not all there’, ‘whack jobs’. Does it make us feel safe to think that they are so far away from us and that we could never do that?
The amount of cult content we consume apparently isn’t putting us off alternative religions. Research from the Pew Research Centre shows that membership is rising fast, especially among women and those aged over 35. I remember a few years ago in an article with DIY magazine , Laura Marling said in an interview that there was a time when she felt lost and got into “a fairly odd, specific kind of transcendental yoga” and saying, “I was pretty close to joining a cult.” If Laura Marling can get close, could any of us?
When I was in my late 20s, my past life as a cult-kid caught up with me. I was 15 when I escaped and I did everything I could to get as far away from ‘them’ as possible; gave myself a new name, different hair, changed my accent, a new life. But I was hiding from a past that was demanding to be processed – like a toddler covering their eyes thinking they can’t be seen. In a bid to understand my childhood and parents, I wanted (needed) to explore why people join cults.
I am a creative director and filmmaker, so on the surface, the idea was to make a documentary series, but the motivation underneath was the unpicking of my history. I flew to America, and in an adventure that felt like Thelma And Louise meets Wild Wild Country, I drove through dozens of states with fellow filmmaker Sofi – from Nevada to Tennessee – and joined cults. I wanted to explore what connected someone in Tucson who was channelling aliens to someone in Illinois who thought they were the bride of Christ. And on this journey, I was struck by how many incredibly intelligent women I met; professors, teachers, nurses, ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Women who had given up their lives, identities and jobs, just like my mother did.
So why do smart women join cults? I can understand the need for self-discovery and expansion, clearly, or I wouldn’t have explored the world of cults myself. What I learned on my journey came down to basic human needs. The need for belonging, community, purpose, and meaning. And the search for an answer to the huge question: “What am I doing with my life?”
It’s dangerous to consider people who join cults as ‘other’ because it means we think it could never happen to us, but I think it could be a case of right time, right (or wrong) headspace.
As for me, I have packed up my truck and joined my last cult, although I imagine my obsession with them will remain. I will spend many more nights in safety watching other people’s beliefs, catharsis, enlightenment and heartbreak play out from a TV screen. An obsession that I understand, because cults tell us so much about ourselves. They represent some of our deepest fear in mankind; the depths that we can go to when we put beliefs above human rights; the horrors that can happen when we use God as an excuse to exploit; the damage that can come when sex and power corrupt; and, of course, how children can become casualties in the wake of “religious freedom.”
As a part of my journey, I confronted my mother to ask why she joined the group that she remains in today. She again spoke of enlightenment and of finding her purpose. But the costs for her have been heartbreakingly high. By remaining where she is, she has lost her relationship with all 12 of her children and given over 40 years of her life to a vision of Armageddon that never happened.
I wonder what she could have achieved if, when she heard that her friend had gone missing, she went to class instead of to Bromley.
I have a photograph of my mum that I love. It’s taken just before she joined the Children of God. Chic bangs surround a face that seems excited about the future. I would have loved to have met her then – when she had her own identity, when she had free will, when the words coming out of her mouth weren’t scripted. When she was an ideological vegan with political views and a love of floral jumpsuits.
I think we would have got on.
Images: provided by Bexy Cameron