Experts define cults as organizations that intentionally strip their
members of power and independent thought to benefit an elite few. While
that may not sound like an attractive arrangement, people continue to
join cults, and the "outside world" continues to wonder why.
Novel's protagonist joins, struggles to escape cult
Eli Brown exposes the dark side of a powerful cult in his first novel.
The Great Days follows the experiences of a young man named August Russ.
is in his 20s," Brown explains. "He dropped out of college to join what
he felt was the true spiritual movement of his age. He has kind of
lifelong depression. He has witnessed difficult things in his life. He
was in a car accident with his father and was trapped. He had to watch
his father die before his eyes. So like many people these days, he was
looking for something to make sense of the trauma he's seen, something
to give him a sense of peace.
"He finds what they call 'The
Movement.' He becomes a student of the prophet, Papa, and ends up
moving to their compound in the desert, where he studies daily. He
works hard with people in the desert and eats very simple meals and
grows crops. They do their meditation and prayers."
After six years of being a faithful follower, Russ is faced with a difficult choice.
discovers that there is corruption in the compound and in the structure
of the organization itself," Brown says. "He is victimized himself, and
he witnesses sexual abuse and physical abuse. When members of the cult
begin to deviate from the path that was chosen for them, they are
disciplined in a method they call 'redirection.' This discipline gets
more and more harsh until it borders on torture. When he sees someone
he loves tortured, he's realizing that the organization has gone sour
and he flees."
People in search of community lured into harmful groups
says he has always been interested in the ways people are manipulated
into making certain decisions. To write his novel, he says he
researched dozens of cults in the United States.
'cult' is only used from outside," he says. "People never say that they
are joining a cult. They don't join cults. They join churches. They
join militias, schools and clinics. They join meditation centers. It's
only later when they want out, when they have escaped, that they look
back and use this disparaging word.
"But people end up joining
these organizations because they want the same thing you and I want.
They want community. They want to feel that they belong. They want
leadership. And whenever people feel those things, there will be an
organization out there to take advantage of them, unfortunately."
Indoctrination, exploitation define destructive cults
to Rick Ross, founder of a nonprofit organization that studies
controversial groups and movements, there are three criteria for
labeling a cult as "destructive."
"One: an absolute,
authoritarian leader that is the defining element of the group. That
is, that the group is personality driven by this living leader," he
says. "Two: There is a process of indoctrination or education that
largely robs people of their ability to independently and critically
think for themselves.
"Then finally, if the group is
considered destructive, it's exploiting the members. This may be sexual
exploitation, financial exploitation, free labor, or it can become even
more destructive when some groups engage in stockpiling weapons,
violence. This varies by degree, depending upon the group."
of the most destructive cults in the history of the United States, Ross
says, was the so-called People's Temple, led by Jim Jones.
1978 - about 30 years ago in November - last month would have been the
30th anniversary of the Jonestown [Guyana] mass murder-suicide which
took the lives of over 900 Americans in an isolated cult compound in
South America in the country of Guyana," he says. "It was there that
Jim Jones took his most loyal followers, isolated them in this very
"And after ordering the execution of the U.S.
Congressman Leo J. Ryan, who came there to investigate the group, Jones
decided that everyone in the compound would die. Hundreds of children
were given cyanide. Their family members also ingested cyanide. Some
were shot, and very few escaped. It was the largest mass suicide-murder
recorded for a cult in American history."
People may be growing more susceptible to cults' influence
Ross says today more people than ever are susceptible to the lure of such groups.
been following cult groups for 26 years, and I can't recall any time
that I've seen more [cult] activity than I do now," he says. "There is
not a day that goes by that I don't find out about a new group that I
haven't heard of that may be quite small that is out there flying below
the radar, so to speak. So the proliferation of groups that can be seen
as cults has increased dramatically."
"Typically," he says, "people
that join cults are at a particularly vulnerable time in their life.
They are depressed. They may feel isolated, lonely, that their career
is off track.
"Also, I think in our society today, in the
industrialized societies, people feel overwhelmed by technology, by so
many choices, and what cults seem to offer is simplicity. One size fits
all. We have all the answers. This can oftentimes be very appealing."
The newest types of cults, Ross says, are terrorist groups.
my view, al-Qaida would fit the profile of a destructive cult, and
Osama bin Laden would be the defining element, the personality that
drives that group," he says. "There has been a proliferation of old and
new cults in the former Soviet Union, China. Of course, there was the
horrible gas attack in the Tokyo subway system by the group called Aum
Shinrikyo. Then there have been many groups throughout Europe, the
U.K., Switzerland and France."
Ross says that just as in Brown's
novel, cult members can be saved only when they realize the truth about
the group they've joined and escape it before harming themselves or
others. He adds that raising public awareness about cults is essential
in order to keep people from joining them - and to make it harder for
such groups to recruit new followers.