The ABCs of Dangerous Cults

Nori Muster's answers to an interview sent in by high school students, Lauren B. and Valeria D.

January 6, 2015

Question: How do cults affect our society in your opinion?

Answer: In my opinion, certain cults have a huge influence. For example, there was a cult in Washington, DC, that allegedly inflicted much suffering in other countries. There are two books on this group by journalist Jeff Sharlet: C Street: The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2009) and The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (2010). Another cult that had a huge influence in Washington is the Unification Church, also known as the Moonies. The late founder, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, believed that he directed American politics through his newspaper, the Washington Times.

We have also seen the influence of Anonymous, a group of computer hackers, who grew out of Scientology. In the late sixties, early seventies, the Children of God had a big cultural influence. They practiced free love (anonymous sex) as a doctrine of their religion, and I believe, perpetuated sexual exploitation during that era. We can also see how hate groups, terror groups, gangs, and organized crime groups influence society. These groups share many of the same characteristics as dangerous cults.

Question: We have done a bit of research on the locations of the cults, but it is difficult to find this information. Do you know if there are countries where a lot of cults are located, besides the United States? And do you perhaps have the names of those cults, so that we can research them.

Answer: Every country probably has at least a few small cults, but some of the most active centers of cultic activity are in the US, Canada, Australia, and China. You can subscribe to Info-Sect, a Canada-based watchdog group, headed by Michael Kropveld, that aggregates cult news and sends articles out to a mailing list. This is their address: Info-secte. You can also review ICSA's press news page, which is updated periodically.

Question: Have you ever had (close) contact with a cult member. If so, what was that like?

Answer: As a member of a cult from 1978 to 1988, I met many cult members of my own group. Since leaving, I have continued to meet current cult members from time to time. There tends to be an unspoken code among cult members that it is important to be upbeat about the group, the leader, and involvement with the group. If anyone says anything negative, there is a tendency to then try to minimize it, and get everyone back to feeling enthusiastic. Therefore, the current cult members live in denial and must put fake smiles on their faces. They may act happy to the point that it is obviously phony. Just below the surface, many cult members are deeply frightened and sad.

Question: Are there many different kinds of cults? We have read a lot about cults that base their vision on religion, but are there different kinds? Maybe cults that have something to do with racism?

Answer: Most cults are based on religion, usually either Christianity or Hinduism. However, apart from religion, we see examples of many other types of cults. Scientology is based on fiction and positive thinking. There are many cultish pyramid schemes, which are called financial cults. We also see psychology cults, often headed by a counselor. Then there are hate groups and terrorist groups, which function like cults. There's a great organization that tracks hate groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). They are attorneys in Alabama who have a long history of defending hate crime victims, and taking hate groups to court.

Question: Are cults always harmful in your opinion? If so, what harm do they do?

Answer: It's really a matter of semantics. The word "cult" has a double meaning. The dictionary definition of cult is simply a subculture of mainstream society. However, the media made it a pejorative word, defining such a group as bad. That's why I always use the term "dangerous cult," if that's the type of group I'm talking about. Within the range of dangerous cults, some are more dangerous than others. Because of my work with the children of cults, I rank them according to how dangerous they are for children.

The most benign dangerous cults may only perpetrate emotional abuse on their members. In other words, anyone who joins the group needs to beware, because they might end up getting their feelings hurt. Cults may damage a person's self-esteem, which is another form of abuse. People who join may pick up bad habits from the cult experience, such as verbal abuse. Cults are often verbally abusive, including threats, yelling, and frequent mental breakdowns among the leaders, and followers.

Financial abuse is also a risk. Cult leaders often try to get whatever they can from people who join. Cult members gradually take on dishonest habits, following the leaders' bad example. Dangerous cults may draw their followers into the world of crime. It could start with begging in parking lots, but end up with drug smuggling, assault, burglary, robbery, embezzlement, etc. The most dangerous cults also murder. The most notorious murderous cult was the Charles Manson Family. The group I was in also had a string of murders. Then there's the risk of a group suicide on the direction of the cult leader. The most infamous group suicide was Jonestown (1978), then more recently, Heaven's Gate (1997).

Almost all dangerous cults cause spiritual abuse, because they distort their followers' relationship with god. Then there's always the risk that a dangerous cult will perpetrate physical and sexual abuse, which also contributes to emotional and spiritual abuse. Cults can also lash out at society, killing people in the outside world. There are plenty of examples of that, also.

Cult behavior is just the worst side of human nature. Dangerous cult leaders are usually immature and psychologically damaged. Anytime you have unqualified leaders, there is the potential for the worst type of cultish behavior. Similar behavior can happen in families, schools, organizations, companies, and governments. That's why it's good to understand dangerous cult dynamics, and why I recommend my books to people who want to learn more about it.

There are also plenty of good groups around, which are not dangerous cults. It all depends on the leaders and whether the group is ethical. This is my list of the traits of healthy groups: 1) Individuality is respected. 2) Differences are tolerated. 3) Boundaries and roles are clearly defined. 4) Problem solving is open and valued. 5) Communication is responsive and accepting. 6) Qualified leadership. 7) Healthy sense of humor, play, and fun, along with good work.

Question: We have found that there is a misconception about the people who are being recruited by cults. They do not have psychological problems, but they are rather intelligent people, is that true? Why do these people choose to be part of a cult? What are the factors that contribute to that decision?

Answer: Potential converts are usually perfectly sane, but often they are searching for something their family of origin neglected to provide. They are often looking for structure, parental guidance, a nurturing home, or spiritual beliefs. Usually, people with a secure upbringing also have a sense of direction in life. They have a plan for themselves, and would not have time for a side trip into a cult. People who feel lost, especially during a stressful transition, are the most vulnerable to joining a cult. The only cult members who did not have a choice are the children born or raised in a cult. That's a special situation.

Question: What are the most important characteristics of a cult?

Answer: The standard description is Dr. Robert J. Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform. This is the most cited list for any legal action involving a cult. I posted the entire document at my site.

But to put it in my own words, I define a dangerous cult as a group centered around a charismatic leader, which is coercive and manipulative. Cults take over people's lives, like an addiction they can't give up.

Question: Have you ever had contact with an ex-member of a cult? If so, was the member rescued by someone else, or was it his/her own decision to leave? Did he/she have permanent emotional damage after leaving the cult and was he/she able to blend in with the society afterwards?

Answer: I am an ex-member myself, and have met many, many ex-members. Even though we all left different groups, we have many things in common. We all had a special cult language, where particular words had cult meanings. And we all have soft spots where hearing those words again can throw us into flashbacks, where we feel like we did in the cult. It can take a long time to get it out of the system. However, people who suffered more abuse will take the longest to heal. One of the most interesting ex-members I've met was a man who left Heaven's Gate just months before the mass suicide. He said things were getting political and he left just in time. He was still deeply affected by the experience.

Most people do eventually heal and walk away from their cults. Others set up their lives to be half-in, half-out for the rest of their lives. Some simply find another guru to follow. The children who leave their groups often have deep wounds from child abuse that they never get over. Many commit suicide. In one case, a child of the Children of God shocked everyone when he committed a grizzly murder-suicide in 2005. Some people who leave after an intervention ordered by the family recover completely and walk away from it, but others end up rejoining their groups.

In my opinion, it is better for someone to leave on their own, by their own choice. Getting forced to leave could cause regrets and confusing feelings of dis-empowerment. On the other hand, I have met ex-cult members that were glad their families intervened.

The memories of being in the cult will never go away. The ex-member just has to learn how to live with the memories. Publishing a memoir, like I did, can slow recovery. It's good to write the memoir, but publishing it ties the author to their cult, even if just for the purpose of defending the book. Also, with a memoir published, potential employers can find out about the cult involvement through a simple Internet search. Thus, the ex-member author must accept the cult as a permanent feature of the resume. In retrospect, I am glad that I published my memoir, but it has a downside I did not consider when I was publishing it.

Question: Do cults always have the same purpose? If so, what is the main purpose of cults?

Answer: The purpose of most cults is to gratify the ego and enhance the financial status of the cult leader(s).

Question: What drives the leader to start a cult? Is it the feeling of power he wants to have or perhaps the money?

Answer: Usually, cult leaders feel like they have special knowledge to share. Often, they came to hold their strong beliefs after a stressful emotional journey that involved euphoric states and mental breakdowns. Also, many gurus had isolated childhoods, so they can only relate to their peers if they are placed on a pedestal. There's a great book on the subject, Feet of Clay, by Anthony Storr, that explains these theories, including examples.

Question: What tactics do cult leaders have to keep their followers/members under control? And what promises do they make to them?

Answer: They work mostly through guilt, shame, and peer pressure. Their promises include shelter from the problems of the outside society, and a path to personal success, salvation, and enlightenment. Read over Lifton's Eight Criteria of Thought Reform, which explains it perfectly.

About Nori Muster

From 1978 to 1988, Nori lived in the West Los Angeles ISKCON center. ISKCON stands for International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Hindu-based new religious movement, started in America in 1965. After leaving the group, she wrote her memoir, Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement. It continues as the best selling book in its category at Her other two books on cults are also available at Amazon: Cult Survivor's Handbook and Child of the Cult. She is a contributor to the ICSA, the International Cultic Studies Association, and will be a speaker at the 2015 conference in Stockholm. Her website for cult abuse recovery is

This article appears at the ICSA website: