R. Kelly: Was He Really Leading a Cult?

Experts, including a former cult member, a psychologist and other mental health professionals, analyze alleged details in embattled R&B singer's case

"It definitely sounds, from the behavior described – especially by the three former victims – like this a mini-cult, and that he preys on vulnerable admirers," former cult member Steve Hassan says of allegations against Kelly. Credit: Prince Williams/WireImage

When news first broke regarding R. Kelly's alleged harboring and mistreatment of a group of six young women, much of the coverage centered on one aspect of the story: it sounded like the R&B performer was leading a cult, brainwashing women and holding them against their will. This involved everything from cutting off communication with their families, to telling them when to eat, how to dress, when they bathe and sleep, and how they engage in sexual activity – which he reportedly records. Kelly's camp has vociferously denied the allegations, but if true, this is abusive, inappropriate behavior. But is Kelly really operating a cult?

As a former member of a cult, Steven Hassan, the founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, and author of Combating Cult Mind Control is familiar with the devastating effects of undue influence.

When attempting to determine whether Kelly's housing of women can be considered a cult, the first thing to understand is that there are different types of cults, Hassan explains, that can take various forms, including benign cults, destructive cults, cults of one, mini cults, macro cults, religious cults and therapy cults.

"It definitely sounds, from the behavior described – especially by the three former victims – like this a mini-cult, and that he preys on vulnerable admirers," Hassan says.

A leading expert in combatting undue influence and cult mind control, Hassan has developed the BITE Model to describe the specific methods cults use to recruit and maintain control over people, covering Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotional (BITE) control. Hassan explains that Kelly is using a lot of the elements included in the BITE Model, including "information control, thought control, regressing these young women to childish thinking, isolating them from family, punishing them if they disobey and, in classic cult style, it sounds like he uses some of the senior members to potentially recruit and control some of the other women."

And, he says, the fact that all six women are of legal age is irrelevant.

"Of course I don't buy the police point-of-view that they're over the age of majority and say they're happy," Hassan adds, noting that reaching a certain chronological age does not make people immune to mind control.

When it comes to coercion and mind control tactics, Hassan notes that in the alleged Kelly situation, "nothing is original."

"It's all very familiar," Hassan says. "You make them fall in love with you, make them think they're special, do intermittent positive reinforcement as well as violence if they break the rules, make them tattle on each other, isolate them from family and friends and make them believe like they'll never be happy if they ever try to get away from him."

But the parallels between Kelly's group of women and a cult aren't as clear-cut for others. To begin with, rather than the women taking up residence with Kelly in an attempt to join a group committed to a greater cause, they did so "because they believed their individuality was about to be maximized and celebrated," says Jessica Meiman, a mental health counselor practicing in New York City. Instead of a cult, Meiman views this case as being more in line with abduction and hostage situations, all for the purpose of serving Kelly's ego.

"R. Kelly has no interest in inducting or converting people into his cult," she explains. "He just needs to feel in total control over others to help maintain his own self-image and delusional sense of power and superiority. Most likely, he truly believes that he is giving these girls a good life and that they are of free-will."

Similarly, Dr. Alisa Ruby Bash, a psychologist practicing in Malibu, Ca. notes that this situation is the definition of an abusive relationship that just happens to involve multiple women at once.

"I would think that all of these women are going to experience all of the same symptoms as any woman in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship would feel," Bash explains. "They have been stripped of their sense of self, disempowered and forced into a victim role."

What is important to keep in mind is that women didn't walk into the coercive conditions described in the Buzzfeed News exposé. 

"While I don't think these young people made a conscious choice to join a group like this, I do think that R.Kelly is and was ready and able to appeal to what these women needed," Meiman says. "They needed hope, which R. Kelly disguised as opportunity."

Often, women who live in these conditions are attracted to the situation for a specific reason, whether it be financial security, a sense of community or even protection, says Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist practicing in Atlanta. In addition, she explains, there are cases where women enter these situations to escape from a worse – or even more traumatic – situation at home.

Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating teenagers who have been victimized, emphasizes how susceptible young people can be to a sense of belonging, like they found with Kelly.

"It so hits directly on the issues of teenage development and satisfies those things so attractive to teens and eliminates many of the struggles that they would otherwise have to cope with," Mayer explains. "Teens are exceptionally vulnerable to such control and manipulation." He also mentions that Stockholm Syndrome could also be in effect, with the women potentially protecting Kelly at all costs, even if they realize they are being controlled and victimized.

But once the unorthodox living conditions – or elements of abuse – become apparent to the women, why would they stay? In short, because having someone famous – especially in the same profession you hope to become successful in – pay personal attention to you and demonstrate interest in your goals heightens your self-esteem, Mayer says. The adolescent angst stemming from grappling with one's identity dissipates; after all, these women could identify as one of Kelly's girls, and might feel secure thinking that they don't have to make choices, as their future in the music industry is all laid out for them.

"It is comforting, it is safe, it is luxurious, it is exciting, it is stimulating, it is anti-establishment – all the things teens are striving for," Mayer notes.

As far as the families of these women, they have to remember that they are not the cause of this arrangement, and not to underestimate the control Kelly has over them, says Anne-Marie Lockmyer, a grief and loss specialist and author.

"Often, this is similar to the feelings of a death, as this is a 'living death' so the family is suffering bereavement," she explains, noting that it is important for them to take care of themselves physically and emotionally, as often the parents' or family relationships can suffer.

If and when the women still living with Kelly are released or leave on their own accord, they may still be treated as outcasts or shamed by their family members when they return home, Metzger says, which can cause even further pain and embarrassment for them. She suggests that the women's families keep communication lines open and not to underestimate the benefit of counseling to get through a difficult and sensitive situation, especially in a case like this when there is so much media attention.

On the other hand, it is this media coverage that has, yet again, brought allegations against Kelly to the public's attention. Hassan says that he thinks it's very brave that the women who were previously involved with Kelly have come forward to try and help other future victims. But ultimately, he believes that people in the music industry – particularly those, like Lady Gaga, who have performed with him in the past – have a responsibility to speak out against Kelly and put an end to the latest chapter of his long-time mistreatment of women.

Watch a timeline of accusations, lawsuits and charges against R. Kelly, from marrying 15-year-old Aaliyah to new allegations leading a "cult."