Nori Muster answers questions for a psychology student doing research on cults.
Interview conducted by email, October 28-29, 2020
Q. How did you become involved in ISKCON [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, aka the Hare Krishna Movement]?
In 1977 I transferred to UC Santa Barbara for my senior year of college. Part of my decision to move was so I could meet new friends who don't use drugs or alcohol, since I had just quit everything. I also wanted to be celibate and go vegetarian. I thought to make all these changes, I should transfer to a new school. Also, UCSB had a major I wanted.
When I moved to Isla Vista, I didn't know anybody, but I soon realized all the students were into alcohol. I got invited to parties with kegs of beer, beer on the floor, everybody drinking beer. So I took classes at the Starlight Bookstore in Santa Barbara, and hung around there to socialize. The man who worked at the store, Phillip, lived at the Santa Barbara mission as a monk. I told him about my longing for purpose in life, and a spiritual practice. He told me he though my beliefs were similar to the Hare Krishnas. I agreed, since I grew up in Los Angeles, and saw Hare Krishnas around there. I had no idea they had an organization, or places where you could visit them or join. Philip said he was planning a trip to Southern California for a Hare Krishna gathering. He said they had talked about opening a preaching center in Isla Vista. Later that fall, the Hare Krishnas from L.A. opened their preaching center, and Phillip encouraged me to go there and get to know them. That led to me joining the West L.A. temple the day after graduation. I stayed ten and a half years. Luckily, my father lived in West Hollywood, just five miles from the temple. He stayed in contact with me on behalf of the rest of the family. He made friends with the people I worked for and did stuff for them to stay in good graces. Like, he spoke at their P.R. conferences, met with leadership to plan P.R. campaigns, etc.
Q. At what point did you realize that ISKCON wasn't what they were pretending to be?
For the last eight years I was in ISKCON, I worked as an associate editor on the ISKCON World Review. I ended up marrying my husband, who was the managing editor. IWR was meant to be a propaganda piece, but also have a voice. My father was a journalist/p.r. man, and volunteered his time as a consultant for our newspaper. He helped us improve our headlines and lead paragraphs, and gave us good ideas. After the ISKCON murder in Los Angeles - the murder of Steven Bryant (May 22, 1986) - our newspaper didn't mention it. My father told us it looked like a lame cover-up, since everybody else covered it. He said, "It's in the L.A. Times, The New York Times, so your paper has to address this." From there we started to do editorials, interviews with the leaders, and more honest reporting. Of course the leadership hated this and shut us down. My father suggested we spell out an editorial policy, get it approved, and go back into print. We did that, but the leaders shut us down again. That was when I realized things must be worse than I thought. I realized they must be covering something up. We left the organization a month or two after that.
Q. How did you get out of ISKCON? Was it easy? Did they try to make you stay?
My father was dying of terminal cancer and asked us to move in to take care of him. That was how we moved away. My father died of his cancer within a week of us leaving the temple.The ISKCON leaders, frankly, were glad we left.
Q. What does the International Cultic Studies Association do? What is your job specifically?
The ICSA is the main group keeping track of religious organizations that may be cults. They don't label groups as cults, but collect information and research groups that exhibit the characteristics of a cult. It dates way back, and was formerly known as the American Family Foundation. Here's a history of the AFF: csj.org
I got involved in 2000, when Dr. Langone asked permission to publish an essay I wrote. After that, I attended their 2004 conference in Alberta to present my research. Since then, they have published a lot of my work, and I've presented at another ten ICSA conventions. I also got involved with the Phoenix Project, which is their art therapy project. We have a gallery of people's artwork at the conventions, and also post artwork at their site, and in the magazine, ICSA Today. I'm also involved with the Education Committee, and the main person who volunteers to answer questions for students.
Q. What is life like in a cult?
Life in a cult is regimented. Most cults are against idol time, so they want every minute to count. Cult members stay extremely busy, and often this leaves very little time to sleep. In my group, everyone had to attend the 4:30 a.m. ceremonies in the temple. So we had to get up at 4 a.m., or earlier. Then we had all this chanting to do, then have breakfast (they served sugary food for breakfast to keep people going), then it was time for "service." In my case, "service" was to work in an office. But for most of the members, it was to go out and do fundraising. That could take all day long, and people might come home around 10 p.m., then get ready to sleep and be up again at 4 a.m.
Besides being regimented, and hard driven, cult members can be judgmental and mean to each other. They can also be awfully mean to outsiders. The leaders teach the followers how fallen and bad the outside world is, and the only people who respect god are already in the group. They also teach followers to feel bad about themselves and denounce their horrible, fallen lives before they met their guru.
Cult leaders get offended if anyone criticizes the group, and train followers to block their ears so they won't hear "blasphemy" of the group. In my group, they said the media published bad articles about us because they hate god.
Cult leaders like it best if members will cut off relations with their old friends and family. They only like your old friends or family members if they will join, do service, or donate money.
The main activities may revolve around listening to lectures (or taped lectures) of the guru, and long discussions among the disciples about how superior their leader is.
Q. What are the defining characteristics of cults?
Here's my collection of lists of the common characteristics of a cult: surrealist.org/cults I see a cult as a cluster of followers who group around an unqualified leader. The danger of a cult depends on whether the group follows laws, and whether it's emotionally abusive.
Another characteristic is they define the world as a duality - us and them. We are good and everyone else is bad.
Another characteristic is the promise. The promise is what hooks people in, and keeps them there. In a religion-based cult, it often has to do with the promise the guru will give followers a connection to god, or salvation.
Q. What are the most famous/dangerous cults today?
The biggest cult today is a network of groups we define as "Bible-based cults." We never use the words "Christian cult," since Christianity is not a cult. The majority of Christian churches are not cults. However, Bible-based cults are running rampant. Cult leaders can turn any philosophy into a cult philosophy, including the Bible. It all depends on the leader. If you have an honest leader who went through divinity school, and has a balanced good understanding of the Christian scriptures and philosophy, that person may become a good leader of a church. However, if you have an incompetent person who thinks they were chosen by god to spread the gospel, you have a cult leader.
Bible-based cults have spread widely because few Americans want to get involved with Hindu gurus. Back in the 1960s, that was a popular trend, and Hindu-based groups flourished. But nowadays, people are not interested in exotic gurus. However, they are vulnerable to being drawn into a Bible-based cult. These groups often prey on college students. So if a student calls home and says they've joined a church, the parents just say "oh nice." They have no idea their child could be in a cult, about to change their major to religious studies. Once graduated, they go to work for the cult. One problem with Bible-based cults is they usually include child abuse.
Famous Bible-based cults include: the Manson Family, the Moonies, the Children of God (one of the most abusive for children), WACO, and Jonestown.
Within the Catholic Church they have child abuse cults, such as the Legions of Christ. To become a priest in that branch of the Catholic Church, you had to agree to be raped by priests as a child. I know men who were priests who left that group. The Catholic Church has been trying to crack down on Legions of Christ for decades. The founder of Legions of Christ died some years ago, so that helped, but it still continues.
At ICSA conferences, I have watched many panel discussions with people who exited Bible-based cults. There are multiple Catholic splinter groups, and many of them are cults. In fact, many of the Bible-based cults come out of the Catholic splinter groups. These cults are often multi-generational. Here's a story about a Bible-based cult in Tucson: norimuster.com
We have other cults, too. There are thousands of small groups with anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred followers. The gurus of these cults may preach any number of philosophies. I've met people from groups that emphasized channeling, or the teachings of Carl Jung, ESP, aliens, or any obscure Hindu guru, or people who say they are Buddhist, or new age people who worship nature, astrology, Masonry, or whatever. Sometimes celebrities and authors form a cult around themselves.
Many of the famous groups from the 1970s are still around, just smaller now: Hare Krishna (the group I was in), Scientology, the Unification Church (the Moonies), Yogibhajan Sikhs 3HO, Transcendental Meditation, theosophy groups, and all those. Theosophy groups date back much further.
There's also Qanon. Qanon is based on the notion that there's a big evil secret behind reality. I prefer to think love is the ultimate secret behind reality, but that's my preference. Anyways, there's been so much published about Qanon lately. Many people want to be told that what they're seeing is not real. Like if there's a horrible contagious disease that got out of control and is killing people, it has to be some sort of evil plot. It can't just be what it is.
In my opinion, Qanon is more of a disinformation campaign than a cult. It's part of a network of online cults that draw people in and scramble their minds. The brainwashing process resembles what happens in a cult, but done with professional means and different motives. I believe Qanon is an agent of anti-civilization propaganda, possibly connected with Russia. If so, this is military-grade propaganda. It's a military operation to inflict harm, not a random crazy person who thinks he's on a mission for god.
Cults brainwash people to love the leader, believe in the promise, and reject the outside world. Qanon brainwashes people to go insane and kill.
There is often a fine line between a cult and a criminal organization. Like, was Charles Manson a murderer, or the guru of a death cult? Was he an LSD guru? A messenger of Jesus? Jesus reincarnated? Was he a CIA victim? Who knows. People call him a cult leader, but he was more of a serial killer with followers, in my opinion.
In Heaven's Gate, the people committed suicide because they believed they would meet a comet that would take them to the promised land. So that was a classic example of cult brainwashing, and mass suicide.
That's not at all what's going on in Qanon. In that group, they teach people to distrust the media, and distrust the government. That's why I call it anti-civilization propaganda. It's dangerous, and has some things in common with a cult. However, it doesn't fit the definition of a true cult.
Q. How are cults different from the famous examples from the 1970s (such as the Manson family, Heaven's Gate, Jonestown, etc)? Are they essentially still the same?
Hmm. Okay, your questions were leading me to the question of crime in cults. I will elaborate further. Like I said before, a cult is considered dangerous depending on whether it follows laws. Some cults were more criminal than cult. The group I was in, ISKCON, had an alarming level of criminal activity. Cult leaders teach followers it's okay to break the law, as long as it's what god wants. The original Krishna group has broken into hundreds of Hare Krishna splinter groups who wanted to disassociate themselves from the crime. Or, some splinter groups that wanted to go full-on criminal. I wrote the book Betrayal of the Spirit, which describes most of the criminal activity that took place during the years I was in ISKCON.
Manson sat in jail until he died, and that adds evidence to why I call it a criminal cult. He was insane. Okay. That group is gone, thankfully. All we usually hear is when the co-conspirators who killed people for Manson are denied parole.
Heaven's gate was a good example of a dangerous religious cult. People were drawn in based on their desire to find inner peace. Unfortunately, the leader was insane. He got everyone so brainwashed they were willing to kill themselves. It's a good example of a group that was not a criminal ring, just unfortunate people who killed themselves for their guru. The guru perished as well.
Jonestown is a good example of a Bible-based cult. Jim Jones was a legitimate minister who went off course. He evolved into a control freak who got a bunch of his followers to go to Guyana with him to build a church down there. However, because he was paranoid and fanatical, he wouldn't let people leave. After receiving warnings and complaints, some people from the House of Representatives, including Congresswoman Jackie Speier, went to Guyana to investigate. Jim Jones reacted with a barrage of gun fire, killing one Congressman, and then all his followers committed suicide. Again, a good example of a cult. I've never heard any conspiracy theories about it, like it was a secret government plot, or whatever. And I'm a fan of Rep. Speier for surviving that incident. She was shot five times and nearly died.
In the Rajneesh cult, people followed their guru to establish a base in Eastern Oregon. Then they executed a plot to spread Salmonella in ten restaurant salad bars, poisoning 751 people. It still stands as America's largest bio-attack. There was also a killer cult in Japan called Aum Shinrikyo. They used Sarin nerve gas to kill thirteen and injure 5,800 people in coordinated subway attacks.
/ A few words in closing /
Well, I hope that answers your questions. Feel free to write back if you have any follow-ups. Or go online and look up some of those stories. There's a lot more information on all those groups. This is just a brief (not too brief!) summary. If it's okay with you, I would like to put this interview on my website.
Thank you again for answering all of my questions so thoroughly, I really appreciate it. Of course you can publish my questions on your website . . . Also would you mind if I shared your responses with my criminal psychology teacher? I'm sure this would fascinate him.