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My Childhood in a Cult (newyorker.com)
153 points by kurmouk on May 5, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 50 comments

Someone I knew was raised in a similar UFO cult. Her mother died when she was young, her dad was a neglectful drug addict. There were times where she and her brother were abandoned for days, and she’d literally survive by eating dog food.

At some point, her dad met and married a woman, who happened to be in a UFO cult like this, where they thought many of them had been abducted or had had close encounters of various kinds. This woman, who I met many years later, was funny and kind and took care of my friend and gave her unconditional love in a way that she had never experienced and treated her like a daughter. Her real dad disappeared again and went off to Canada permanently, leaving her with the cult as her only family. It was a distinct step up as a family situation from how she was raised.

In 2000, when my friend was 17 or 18, the whole cult went off into a compound in the mountains waiting for the world to end and go off into space. My friend, who was super intelligent and curious, at that point was skeptical, but she went because it was the only family she had.

The world didn’t end, and she turned 18 and moved out on her own.

I met her a few years later, and we started dating, not knowing any of this back story — she was remarkably normal, all considering — and at some point, she told me the story of going off into the woods, and I laughed and just sort of assumed she was as cynical about that as she was about everything else — but her eyes flashed with anger and I realized I had stepped on a land mine.

It wasn’t that she really believed in aliens, or that she had been abducted by aliens as her foster mother had convinced her of, when she was younger. She just wanted to believe that this woman who loved her and had saved her wasn’t crazy, so she held open the possibility in her mind.

Cults are complicated, and so are families.

> I met her a few years later, and we started dating, not knowing any of this back story — she was remarkably normal, all considering — and at some point, she told me the story of going off into the woods, and I laughed and just sort of assumed she was as cynical about that as she was about everything else — but her eyes flashed with anger and I realized I had stepped on a land mine.

My guess, that it is nothing to do with her cynism or beliefs. You can be sceptical about Christian God, and at the same time you may be angry with people who make fun of sacred items and rituals. It was a real emotional experience for her and for others, it is something that you seem to miss, and your laugh offended all of that. The land mine was not a belief system, but a narrative, while you thought of that as of funny adventure of stupid people, she thought about people whom she knew empathically.

How true. If one's parents skinned puppies and sold their pelts for a living and one grew up to be a vegetarian who hated them for it, one would likely still have a hard time tolerating other people later in life ridiculing or criticizing them.

I think it's because we see our parents (usually) as ultimately good people, and when people criticize or ridicule our parents it feels like they are suggesting the parents are not good people, even if that's not what they mean.

Nice perspective, thanks for sharing.

There's a great passage in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King that touches on this. A character finds that when he's home, he finds his parents' conservative views frustrating and backwards and constantly argues with them about it. But when he comes across those views in his daily life, he finds them oddly comforting and reassuring on some level.

Prior to my life in technology I had similar experiences to the author. I was involved with multiple spiritual groups that could be classified as cults. One mistake that I have seen people without first-hand experience make is assuming that the people are in it to deceive or take advantage of others.

On the contrary, I have seen that people in these groups often have the best intentions. For a long time, it was a mystery to me how these groups could end up going so wrong, often devolving into gun battles, suicides, or sexual deviance. A few years ago I found a book called "The Guru Papers"[0] which does a fantastic job of explaining how these things occur, even in well-intentioned groups. If you have been involved in a group like this, or are just curious about the psychology involved, I highly recommend it.

[0]: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B007WL0JHE/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?...

Another resource I like is the ABCDEF framework: http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.html

It's a nice way of scoring some group to see how cult-like it is.

Cults fill important human needs for human connection, structure, seemingly-legitimate authority, existential meaning and a driving purpose for life. To the degree these aren't provided by healthier structures in our society, individuals will be drawn to these organizations. And many things which we do not often think of as cults in many ways fit into the broader conception thereof: militaries, political parties, yoga studios, etc. have all been known to fall into that classification.

Steve Hasan's BITE model is a great framework for thinking about these things. In many ways, control of behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions is what all human organizations do, so it's more of a cost/benefit analysis than an either/or analysis that's called for. There are varying degrees of "cultiness". Recommended reading: "Combating Cult Mind Control".

An evolutionary analysis of these sorts of social structures is also fascinating. If you treat a cult like a superorganism that must compete for resources with other organizations in the culture, you can understand many of the pressures driving them. Jonathan Haidt has shown how "morality binds and blinds", and this is nowhere stronger than in cults whose distinct moral code both binds people together into a unit, and blinds them to the true nature of the group.

In many ways, control of behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions is what all human organizations do

I'm pretty cynical, and I recognize how pervasive and successful these manipulation techniques are (so pervasive that it seems silly to talk about them as if they're particular to cults at all), but it seems wrong to say "all human organizations" seek to control. Unless you consider things like the following examples of control: disseminating information, saving lives or healing people, having fun, etc.

I think it would be much more accurate to say there's the potential for manipulation to seep into any human organization. But a weekend softball league isn't manipulating anyone.

Give humanity a little credit.

Exertion of control does not always imply manipulation; compliance can be enthusiastic and voluntary.

A weekend softball league might schedule games, which to a (yes, very minor) degree, is all about controlling who goes where and when for those who want to play softball.

Really, if an organization cannot expect voluntary compliance from its members on anything at all, is it even an organization? A single shared common belief is all it takes.

This reduces the meaning of "control" to be completely useless. "Combating mind control" kind of loses its edge if you're going to war with book clubs.

Control is both enabling and disabling, depending on the specifics; I think that is an important lesson that can come from looking at "cults".

Examples of enabling control: Learning math was forced on me as a child (unlike reading, I hated doing problems), but its importance to my life cannot be overstated. I join exercise classes to control myself and make sure that I get healthier. Etc. While there is a lot of difference between these and a "cult", I think the point of the OP is that control isn't simply bad.

And yet that doesn't change the point of this thread -- that it's going too far to say all human organizations exert control over their members.

I think the point of the thread is a discussion of whether "all human organizations exert control..." You disagree, but I think the statement under question is basically correct. Your last reply doesn't add any support to your position.

It's easy to dismiss cults until you realize how easily an intelligent person can fall under their spell. Many cults have very logical belief systems predicated on a few twisted axioms. If you convince an intelligent, rational person that those axioms are true, you have them. Often the smartest folks are drawn in because they are used to having beliefs and convictions far outside the mainstream which are rooted in reason(general relativity, for example).

I grew up atheist, but ended up spending about 6 years in a cult-like, nameless, christian denomination. It wasn't until the results of their belief system became absurd that I started to question the entire system.

Intelligence comes with its own particular blindspots. A person convinced of own intelligence is likely to follow a novel approach that is logical even if it goes against "widely established practices". I think we can easily name examples from our own industries; both positive and negative.

This is a double-edged sword in that it can both cut through the cruft of outdated ideas & bad practices, as well as cut off valuable experience gathered through generations.

Moreover a person with intelligence and deep experience in a particular subject runs increased risk of over-estimating own abilities in other, unrelated fields.

> If you convince an intelligent, rational person that those axioms are true,

If you convince them that those axioms are true, than they are not intelligent nor rational.

No, this kind of reductive thinking doesn’t hold. Ever heard of that alchemist quack who also did some math on the side? Newton, his name was.

From Wikipedia:

Alchemy (from Arabic: al-kīmiyā) was an ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practiced throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, originating in Greco-Roman Egypt in the first few centuries AD. It aims to purify, mature, and perfect certain objects. Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble metals" (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent.

So, what was irrational with alchemy at the times Newton lived?

By the way, please do not confuse true with believable: astrology is not true and not believable; cold fusion is not true but believable.

Newton lived in the 17th century.

Do we have proof of the intelligence of said victims ?

I know an example. The Aum Shinrikyo, which is known as one of the most violent cults in Japanese history, had many elites from top universities including doctors, lawyers, graduate students and so on.

Back in the mid 80s, I attended a Heaven's Gate presentation. The ideology was preposterous, but they were interesting people. And very into computers and stuff.

One of our friends joined, notwithstanding our advice. We remained off-and-on in touch, and he seemed happy, and up to cool stuff. But then he was one of the 1997 suicides.

Sorry to hear that. I think we all think of cults as something distant and weird, but the reality is if you're in one or close to one, you are not aware of it, almost by definition.

"The community founded by the late Mel Lyman is still around today and runs a flourishing home-renovation business in the Los Angeles area."

In case anyone else was curious, the company is called Fort Hill Construction. Here's their website, where you can get a sense of just how well they've done:


The title says "Fort Hill | Just Another WordPress Site" haha.

"Just Another WordPress Site" is the default sub-title for any new WP site.

This is the best real estate site experience I’ve ever had on mobile.

It’s almost like they want my money. A very unusual model for restaurant/real estate websites.

I wonder if they're hiring

>See, now the whole story has taken a turn. You’ve maybe forgotten everything I wrote before. You’re horrified; you want to know more. I’ve told you these things because I didn’t want you to think I was weak or timid, or apologetic about some of the uncomfortable truths. Now I can’t take them back.

That is a pretty hard turn but maybe a good lesson too about how in this day and age there is so little room for understanding that we struggle to think of anything else once we hear things that are objectionable.

For those who ask us Germans why we're so adamantly opposed to homeschooling and why we have mandatory medical checkups for children/infants ("Vorsorgeuntersuchungen"): this is why.

Having kids end up immersed in cults and brainwashed is a real risk, and the costs that society has to bear once these kids "wake up" is immense. Not to mention kids ending up totally uneducated and unfit for adult life due to plainly incompetent parents and the follow-up costs of that.

Compulsary education in Germany goes back to the days of Prussia. It was mostly about nation-building and replacing regional identities with a common national identity.

Having kids brainwashed and immersed in state-level cults is also a real risk, and the costs that society, and other societies, have to bear (even before these kids "wake up") is something I believe every civilization is familiar with after the twentieth century (particularly Germany...), and far outstrips practically every cost ever borne by modern societies up until that point due to cults and homeschooling.

Assuming that the government itself doesn’t get taken over by a cult, as has happened in some countries.

Yeah but not even Scientology managed to do this in the US...

If you interpret “cult” slightly less literally, I’m sure you can think of some fairly vivid examples of cults that have seized control of the governments of even developed countries, and used that power to indoctrinate children via the official school system. In a situation like that, some homeschooling might have even been beneficial, compared to the alternative.

What's on the back of your mind exactly ? Why the shroud of mystery ?

For instance, it isn’t hard to think of the Khmer Rouge or the fascist movements as political cults.

I would not make it so easy for the fascists to excuse them as cults. Fascists all know what they want (exterminating everybody not deemed worthy for their race), and they all owed their success to "conservatives" who would rather support them in their mission than to give up privileges.

Possibly Islam with the shit that goes on in Saudi-Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, but heh these countries are majority Muslim anyway so homeschooling would not fix the issue either.

> What I tell them is that, if you haven’t heard of a cult, it’s because it didn’t go down in flames. Its members are just quietly doing what they do, which means that there are many more active cults today than we are aware of.

100%, I personally have a story titled "how my grandmother got me involved with a Brazilian cult for a week", if you do a quick search for "John of God" you will probably immediately find it. It wasn't a doomsday cult or a massive incestuous orgy, but it was clearly one if these "oh this is actually a massive scam" with extremely loyal followers. My grandmother and her husband actually went to something he hosted in New York a year or so ago iirc.

EDIT: Holy shit just looked now and apparently he was arrested in January for having a BUNCH of child sex slaves and other stuff

All kinds of celebrities and politicians went to John of God too.

Y'know, this is a story that I would always tell my friends in a lighthearted way cause its just a pretty absurd story... boy does this add some punch to it now

One of the best low budget cult/ sci fi movies ever made:


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