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A cult’s recruitment process and psychological hold on its members can seem like an obvious red flag to outsiders, and leave us thinking, as individuals, that we’re way too smart and savvy to ever fall into anything like that. But it happens consistently. From ancient times to the modern day, there’s always been an ever-present person who comes along and strikes the perfect combination of intrigue and awe among followers, with control and manipulation not far behind. From the Manson Family to ISIS, Waco to Jonestown and beyond, the best books about cults take a deep dive into the testimonials from survivors and overviews of the experts.
While all cults differ with motives, methods and objectives, there are definitely common threads to look out for, the biggest one being abusive control. “A personality-driven and defined group dominated by a charismatic leader is the most salient single feature of destructive cults,” says Rick Alan Ross, an expert in cult behavior and deprogramming, and author of Cults Inside Out.
For some, exploitation could be a common trait too. Ross says leaders often convince members to willingly hand over access to their finances, or perform labor without pay. Cults hold a tight control over the individual, both psychologically and emotionally, he explains, with a goal of slowly increasing their isolation away from family, friends, and the outside world, sometimes even moving them to a far-off base or compound.
“It varies person to person, but if they’re welcomed and received in a safe way that makes them feel a sense of belonging, and offers an approval that perhaps they don’t have in their lives, it can be a place where they feel someone really gets them,” says Dr. Tod Gross, a Boston-based psychologist who has worked with victims of abuse. “A charismatic and sincere approach from a demonstrative recruiter,” he continues, “might be all it takes, and all of a sudden they feel like they’re part of a brotherhood/sisterhood, and treated in a way that makes them feel special, with a chance to be something bigger than just themselves.”
Abusive and controlling cults know exactly who they’re going for and prey upon them, utilizing timeless strategies that can sway even the most unlikely of people. According to Ross, “My experience has taught me that a cult can potentially recruit anyone regardless of his or her education or social background. No one is invulnerable or somehow immune.”
And while it may be easy for us to say we’d simply leave or escape in that situation, it’s not always a realistic option. Even if the person isn’t physically constrained or threatened with shame or violence, which they often are, betraying the beloved abductor or leader can be an unthinkable act. The recent success of shows like HBO’s NXIVM documentary, The Vow, the Leah Remini-led, Scientology and the Aftermath, and Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, show that trying to leave a cult could be just as damaging as staying in one.
For those who do manage to leave, it’s an often brutal process. The amount of willpower it takes to endure years of abuse, and the brazen courage needed to escape, is almost unfathomable to those who haven’t lived it. But it’s possible, documented here with these stories of survival, and a disturbing look at how deeply and quickly an ideology can create a dangerous fringe of society.
Destructive and isolating cults can masquerade as anything from religions to self-help and even exercise regiments. These books tell the stories, and warning signs, from those who studied it, lived it, and escaped from the deepest reaches of cult organizations.
1. Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs
Warren Jeffs was the self-proclaimed “President and Prophet, Seer and Revalator” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church), a polygamous, extremist, secretive sect of Mormonism.
In the FLDS, men were obligated to practice what he called “plural marriage” in order to achieve the highest levels of exaltation in the afterlife’s “celestial kingdom.” Jeffs had up to 70 wives (some of which were his father’s, whom he married after the patriarch passed away), was responsible for assigning wives to husbands (some as young as 12), and even held the power to reassign a member’s family to another man. In 2004, he did just that – kicking out 20 men, including the mayor of the community, and ordering their wives and children to new husbands.
This barely scratches the surface of the story though, as Jeffs’ daughter, Rachel, tells firsthand in this unnerving read. Claims of physical and psychological abuse were common in the FLDS, which Rachel was born into, and had a strict patriarchal culture where women didn’t dare speak up or speak out. Even as the leader’s daughter, Rachel was no exception, enduring years of sexual assault beginning when she was just 8, being forced into marriages with men three to four times her age, backstabbing and jealousy among the fellow “sister-wives”, and being locked away from her children as punishment for disobedience.
Despite living under the oppression of her intimidating father, she managed to escape in 2015 and tell her story, while many of her friends, family, and sister-wives still remain in the isolated cult out west.
Warren Jeffs eventually ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted List as a fugitive, was apprehended, and is now in prison until eligible for parole in 2038. While he continued to run the organization from jail, and even wrote a book of his own, the story gets even weirder and more outlandish as his behavior in prison becomes increasingly bizarre.
For further reading on this subject, check out “Under The Banner of Heaven” by John Krakauer too.
2. Cults Inside Out
Rick Alan Ross is one of the leading experts out there on destructive cults. His career spans over three decades and boasts some serious credibility (along with getting plenty of lawsuits and death threats). Ross has worked as an analyst for CBS and the CBC, lecturing at colleges and universities, consulting with the FBI, and testifying as an expert in US Federal Court.
He’s participated in about 500 interventions to deprogram cult members — some successful and others not — but he details both in this compelling case study. There are interviews with real former cult members, who explain how they were slowly swayed into joining, and the strategies that eventually led them back out.
The book takes us through the history of modern cults, some well-known and others not so much, explaining the differing types of groups and their “persuasive influence techniques,” which we’ve come to colloquially call “brainwashing.” It reads as more of a reference tool, loaded with academic research, and is especially great for anybody worried about a loved one in danger of joining a cult.
And while it dives deep into the definitions of cults and how people fall in, the most important aspect it offers here is how to get them out. Ross suggests a multi-day intervention, with worried family and friends expressing their concern, all while treating the victim with dignity and respect. The goal is discrediting the cult’s leader by reigniting the person’s critical thinking skills, reminding them of who they used to be, and perhaps the most crucial and difficult part – not calling them brainwashed or stupid.
3. Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM
How can a smart, savvy, educated adult fall victim to a cult, even when she had her initial doubts?
This unsettling read tells the story of Sarah Edmondson, and her harrowing narrative of joining the infamous sex cult NXIVM, eventually becoming a whistle-blower and escaping.
The group, officially advertised as a multi-level marketing company offering personal and professional development through its “Executive Success Programs,” gave her a feeling of belonging, even empowerment, as she rose through the ranks to become the Vancouver head of NXIVM. But as with all cults, there was a dark ulterior motive under the surface. The group was centered around a male leader and a whole host of female associates aiding him, using the company as a recruiting platform for sex slavery, with hundreds of women who were “honored” to have him brand his initials on their skin.
Edmondson unfolds the story in a plain but informative manner, keeping exaggerations and drama to a minimum and instead giving it to us as a cautionary tale.
She didn’t just quit quietly either. She bravely and publicly spoke out against them and took on the aggressively litigious organization in court battles, saving as many other members as she could in the process.
Thanks to her information and cooperation, the FBI eventually closed in on NXIVM, sending most high-ranking members to federal prison. To this day, the leader still has a hand in running operations from behind bars, and die-hard supporters organize “dance protests” outside the jail where he’s kept.
HBO and Starz also made the story of NXIVM into two documentaries for those who want to continue learning more about this incredible story.
4. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems
For anyone thinking that you’re confidently outside the grasp of being recruited, this book explains why, and how, anyone can fall prey.
Author Alexandra Stein is a Doctor of Sociology, and clearly lays out the initial stages, recruitment and retention of a cult and their followers, with plenty of real-life examples and testimonials. The main focus here is “Attachment Theory” – coercing members to replace their feelings of actual family with their newly-found leader and his/her philosophy.
The book completely envelopes the reader into the psyche of a cult member, providing an insightful look at the joining process as well as the emotional aspects that fuel it. Each chapter increases step-by-step, as if you’re being recruited, slowly giving up your regular life and being drawn into the false promises and realities of the organization.
It’s a terrifying but educational read, as well as a way to better understand the recruiting process – and how there’s often hope of bringing the person back.
5. Waco: A Survivor’s Story
In April 1993, a small religious sect known as the Branch Davidians were living outside Waco, Texas in a compound dubbed Mount Carmel. Led by David Koresh, the group was rumored to be stockpiling weapons or even running a meth lab, while Koresh was suspected of physical assault, statutory rape, and polygamy – entitling himself to at least 140 wives and laying claim over any women in the group.
The ATF and FBI began surveilling, which led to a tense standoff, followed by a gun battle that took the lives of four government agents and six Branch Davidians, and a botched raid that ended in a massive tragedy which caught the attention of the nation.
The US Government’s official report on what happened varies widely from those who were there. But this account, written by survivor David Thibodeau, tells the story of what went on inside the compound during the 51-day siege, from his point of view. As one of only 11 who lived to tell about it (and only four who weren’t given prison sentences afterwards) Thibodeau’s retelling starts before even meeting Koresh, as he walks the reader through the increasing chaos that ensued all the way up to, and after, the fire that burned it all down, killing Koresh and 77 others – 25 of whom were children.
Accounts of what happened that day are all over the place depending on the source, which makes it an even more interesting rabbit-hole of information to go down. The book’s conversational tone gives a necessary glimpse into a side of the story that’s easy to get immersed into.