My slight obsession with books about cults
I love me a good cult story (by which I mean a true life story about people in a cult, not a story that takes on its own cult of popularity. Although, on further thought, I love those too... Hello Napoleon Dynamite.)
Clearly my mother shares my morbid fascination with cults, mind control and the abuse of power because nearly every time I turn up to her place she has a new book on the subject (which, obviously, I steal from her to read at home and then tragically forget to bring back. This is also much like my relationship with my father's John Grisham novels. However, I digress.)
I'd prefer a good cult story to the proverbial airport fiction. My most recent in-flight entertainment featured Scientology, through the appalling story of Jenna Miscavige with all its relevant childhood abuses, pulling apart of families and wielding of power in ridiculous, contradictory ways by old men.
My favourite cult of all is the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), otherwise known as those nutty Mormons who still practice polygamy and wear funny long dresses. I have probably read almost every book written by former FLDS members. (Plus I loved 'Big Love', the HBO TV Show featuring a suburban polygamist family.)
This week I picked up When Men Become Gods, which followed the story of the downfall of FLDS 'Prophet' Warren Jeffs. It's an interesting read, with many of the stories from the other ex-FLDS books retold and put into context.
I read it the same way I've read all my favourite cult books: with a certain horrified fascination, a sense of holding it away from myself. I see the cult behaviour as separate from me. You know. *Those* people, with their funny beliefs; *they're* the ones who do nutty things. I mean, if you believe this doctrine and follow that belief, of course there's the potential for trouble.
Recently, though, I read another cult book, Girl At The End of the World. This one was a little bit more challenging. Elizabeth Esther grew up in a Christian cult. The Scriptures they quoted in support of their controlling, manipulative behaviour are the same Bible verses I've read and valued since I was a child.
It's easy enough to dismiss cults when they believe weird things. It's a lot harder to keep them separate, Over There, when they're using the same language you do.
In the end, cults are not about their list of beliefs. Cults are about power. And where there are people willing to abuse power to control other people, there will be cults, regardless of the doctrines they profess to follow. They don't even have to be religious. You can have a cult around a personality, a financial system, or a self-help philosophy.
I've had brushes of experience with cults, including watching one develop over several years amongst people I knew well and loved a lot. And it wasn't because they were nuts. It's not just crazy or particularly vulnerable people who can get sucked in, just like it's not just crazy or particularly vulnerable women who end up in domestic violence situations.
Cult control is all about the leader, whose charisma and teaching must always be unquestioned. He (or she) is special, gifted or particularly knowledgeable. What he teachers divides families, creates a select group of 'special' people, promises special enlightenment (which is practically impossible to ever measure) and requires complete submission from members, often manifested in making 'confessions' to leaders who are above them in what is often a highly authoritarian and hierarchical system. A cult is also incredibly serious. Humor has no place! There's also no option to come and go as you choose. There are only two states:in the cult, or out and cut off from everyone you love and value.
If I ask you the question, "Are you in a cult?", you might give three possible responses. One is, "No." The second is, "No. How dare you ask me that! It's not a cult!" said with a great deal of indignation. The third is, "Maybe." If you're in category two or three, it may be worth checking out this list of cult characteristics.