Life in a cult: 'Like an extreme version of domestic violence'
Michele Weekes and Tim Fisher for Life Matters
April 12, 2018
From indoctrination and control, to god-like gurus and 'love bombing' - there's a powerful psychology behind why people join cults, and why they stay.
But what makes a cult? And are they, by definition, always 'bad'?
As someone who was once deeply involved in several, Mary Garden is uniquely qualified to comment.
It was it very, very hypnotic.
Having discovered yoga at the age of 16, in the 1970s she left university and her life in New Zealand for India, spending seven years in various sects and cults.
For her, the dangers stemmed partly from naivety.
"You've got to realise there had been no exposes or warnings of these groups," she says.
"Tens of thousands of us Westerners went over to India in the footsteps of the Beatles.
"I think you can under-estimate the power, the feelings you can get with the mantras and the rituals. It was it very, very hypnotic."
Eventually, Ms Garden found herself pregnant to a yogi in the remote Himalayas.
"Many of us Westerners got pregnant. I got pregnant twice," she says.
Initially not allowed to see a doctor, Ms Garden managed to get away, and had a late-term abortion.
"I ran away quite often and but I would still be drawn back," she says.
"I was completely under [the guru's] spell. I mean, I thought he was this god-like figure.
"There's extreme pressure to believe everything he says and to be devoted. I'm very grateful I managed to get away."
Cult-like dynamics can exist in meditation, self-help groups
Tore Klevjer is a Wollongong-based counsellor who helps former cult members adjust and recover.
Having spent 11 years in Children of God, a Christian cult founded in the United States, he's highly qualified for the work.
"Many people think a cult is just a strange religion or strange set of belief systems, but the defining factors are more the abusive things," he says.
"Having rights and freedoms taken away from members, and then instilling in them an extremism, and a sense of black-and-white thinking."
As Mr Klevjer explains, a cult does not have to be religious.
"The dynamic of control and abuse can exist in meditation groups, or self-help groups," he says.
"What makes one person vulnerable may be a religious belief, and what may make another person vulnerable may be a desire for self-improvement."
It's often said that no one sets out to join a cult - and Mr Klevjer agrees.
"People don't go down a list of known cults, choose one and think, 'This is the philosophy that best suits me'," he says.
"The key thing to remember is that they don't know what they're joining - this is where coercion comes into it.
"If people knew upfront what all the beliefs of the group were they would probably never join, but it's a slow process where the inside doctrine of a group is released over time."
After spending several years with different gurus in India, Ms Garden can attest to this approach.
Mary Garden participating in a cycling road race in the bush.
"Most of us who go into these groups, especially with a charismatic leader, it's like we have this love affair," she says.
"We fall in love with them, and we are in the honeymoon phase for a long time."
And as she explains, if a guru becomes controlling or abusive, the behaviour can be rationalised away.
"It's very much like an extreme version of domestic violence," Ms Garden says.
"It means the guru can get away with doing anything abusive, and it's rationalised as his 'drama', or a game to wake us up. So everything that happens and what we go through is all our fault."
Control and 'love bombing'
Mr Klevjer says most cults share patterns of operation, including a controlling technique commonly known as "love bombing".
He describes this as a situation in which new members are made to feel at the centre of the group's universe.
"You've met this wonderful group of people who all want to be your best friend, and they all want to know everything about you," he says.
"A lot of love, a lot of hugs, a lot of affirmation and it just really feels like a type of paradise.
"It's like, 'Wow, I found this family that I never had'."
Mr Klevjer explains that in The Children of God, this "love" became increasingly conditional on a member's participation and their submission to belief systems that were released incrementally.
"If at any point you question the beliefs they present, they sort of back off and justify it, saying 'Oh no no, we didn't really mean that, it's not that we believe he is the end-time prophet of God, he's just like a minister'," Mr Klevjer says.
Joining at 21 years old, Mr Klevjer gave the cult control of his finances, and was encouraged to write letters to parents to say he had a new family.
"It's one of my greatest regrets," he says.
"There's this process of cutting off your old life and embracing the new and that's affirmed as a badge of allegiance and a badge of courage.
"Your whole social life, your friends, your work, your vision for the future, everything that you are gets wrapped up in the group."
Life after escaping a cult
For both Mr Klevjer and Ms Garden, extricating themselves was a long process.
Having been a member for over a decade, by the time Mr Klevjer left Children of God, he had a family of his own; a wife and five children.
"There was a lot of pressure on the children, which impacted my wife," he says.
"They couldn't really play outside. Their lives were completely taken up in the group with homeschooling, and my wife saw a lot more of the lack of opportunities.
"But the real clincher was when I started, because of the pressure, to question some of the doctrines of the group ... that just wasn't allowed.
"We were kicked out temporarily, first hoping we would repent and come back more submissive, and then when that didn't happen, we left and came back to Australia."
Once free of a cult, finding help can be a challenge too.
For many years, few mental health professionals had the training to adequately deal with former members.
"I was obviously suffering post-traumatic stress from being with that Himalayan Yogi who physically and mentally abused me quite severely," Ms Garden says.
"I remember ringing up Lifeline, saying 'I need help, I feel suicidal.'
"When I went in to talk to someone, at the end of the session she said 'Oh, it's so fascinating. What an interesting story'.
"I went to people over the years to try and get help and they just had no understanding at all."
As a counsellor now specialising in helping those who've lived in cults or suffered religious abuse, Mr Klevjer feels many counsellors may not attribute the damage they're seeing in a person's life to a cult.
"There are mental health professionals coming up to speed with this, but many of them do not want to touch it," he says.
"They don't see the full breadth of the damage that can be caused when people are institutionalised in this way."
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