“We predispose ourselves into being vulnerable because we dismiss cults as crazy”
OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts with notable figures in and around the tech industry.
This week, we’re joined by Rick Alan Ross, a professional cult deprogrammer. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Community as we know it is in a state of decline. People today have fewer friendships than ever, they are lonelier than ever, and religious participation is at an all-time low, with 23% of people in the U.S. declaring themselves as having no religion. Technology has played a big role in this decline in community, with most people preferring to sink into the internet instead of strengthening physical bonds. And with such a gaping hole in our lives, cults are filling the void.
Joining us to discuss what’s happening is Rick Alan Ross, the world’s preeminent authority on cults and head of the Cult Education Institute. He recently appeared on HBO’s The Vow, which examined NXIVM, a self-help organization-turned-sex cult.
Kantrowitz: Do you think the decline of in-person, physical community has played any role in the appeal of cults in general?
Ross: The nuclear family has deteriorated, the divorce rate is certainly substantial. There are single-parent households, there are parents that both work and are not home with their kids, and people grow up feeling somewhat socially isolated. When you see people interacting through their smartphones and not really meeting people in person, you become isolated and feel perhaps more vulnerable.
A consistent thread that pulls through so many narratives of people who become involved in cults is that they’re going through a difficult time in their life and they need something. They may have had a recent breakup with a romantic relationship, they may have lost a parent, someone close to them, they’re not doing well at work, at school. Something is going wrong; they’re not feeling really right, really happy. And then they have the bad luck to have somebody approach them who is involved in a group that could be called a cult. And frequently, the people that approach you are someone you know. It would be perhaps a family member, a friend, a co-worker, someone at school. And they might email you about a particular group and point you to a link that can then hook up with that group.
If you’re in a vulnerable time, you’re more likely to appreciate that and accept that. And of course, that initial introduction is done by someone who’s probably a true believer, caught up in the group himself or herself, and really they’re not disclosing to you the full agenda of the group. Their main goal is just to get you through the door. And if you’re at a vulnerable time, you may acquiesce and think, well this could be a good thing, it could be helpful to me.
You said, “a group that could be called a cult.” Why a little bit of the hedge there?
I have a very narrow definition of a destructive cult. I acknowledge that there could be, for example, a benign cult and many of the groups that are labeled as cults in my opinion are not cults. So I would provide this as the nucleus for a definition of a destructive cult. And I write about this in my book Cults Inside Out that has an entire chapter to define a destructive cult.
I see it as having three core characteristics. One, a totalitarian leader who becomes an object of worship who’s the defining element and driving force of the group. Whatever the leader says is right is right; whatever he or she says is wrong is wrong and you can not question the leader.
Second, the leader uses what can be seen as a thought reform program, which would be a synthesis of coercive persuasion and influence techniques to gain undue influence over his or her followers. Finally, if the group is a destructive cult, that group exploits and does harm to the people that are involved.
Take those three core characteristics together, the nature of the leader and the power of the leader and the control of the leader. The coercive persuasion employed by the group to shut down critical thinking engender dependency and basically gain undue influence. And then finally, the use of that influence to then exploit and do harm to people. That would be my definition of a destructive cult.
It seems like we’re talking a lot more about cults recently. It does seem like they’re rising. Is that a fair assessment?
Totally. In the ’80s there was an estimate given by one cult-watching organization, The International Cultic Studies Association, that said there were 5,000 groups that had been identified in the United States alone. Now, the same organization would put that number based on complaints at over 10,000.
So it’s just escalating constantly and I would say the reason is it’s a very lucrative business. When you look at it as a business model, you make a lot of money. When Reverend Moon died at the age of what, 92, or whatever a few years back, his estate was valued at $600 million.
And tell us who Reverend Moon is…
Reverend Moon was the self-styled messiah. He came from South Korea; he created a group called the Unification Church, commonly called the Moonies, which reflected his name, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. And the Moonies were ubiquitous across the United States in the late ’70s and ’80s recruiting on college campuses. There were thousands of them that would be in fundraising teams raising as much as $200 each, a day. And that money was funneled to Moon and he invested it in a fishing fleet, the sushi business. It’s been reported that he or his heirs, his children, control perhaps 50% of the wholesale sushi business in major metropolitan areas like Chicago, New York.
There’s a lot of money in the cult business. For example, L. Ron Hubbard, who was the founder of Scientology. When he died in 1986, his estate was valued at over $600 million as well. And now, the book value of Scientology is reportedly over $3 billion and there have been reports that they have a cash reserve of $1 billion.
People may start cults because they want to make money, but there also has to be demand for them. What’s making people so interested in getting involved?
All of us go through difficult times in our lives. And if a group called the cult can hit someone up at the right time, at the right place, in a difficult period in a person’s life, that person is susceptible. All of us want to be happy. We want to have a fulfilling life and these groups will tell you they have all the answers and that they can fulfill your need for happiness and give you a sense of community, inclusiveness. There’s a phenomenon called love bombing when you’re initially approached by a group with seemingly unconditional love. They shower you with it and make you feel wanted, needed, accepted.
And this can be very appealing to people who don’t realize that that love is actually highly conditional and completely predicated on your willingness to buy into the group and become an active member and help the group.
Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, which talks about how community and civic participation are going down and people are watching television instead. Is that one of the coinciding forces that helped this stuff grow — people weren’t getting love bombs elsewhere?
In my experience, dealing with thousands and thousands of ex-cult members, affected families, and so forth, what I see as a consistent thread is that someone was not happy at the time they were approached. And I think that if you are watching a lot of television rather than being involved with people in your own life, and your life is somewhat socially isolated, that does make you more vulnerable.
When you’re plugged into a community and a family and you’re talking with people every day, you’re going to bounce off of those people and that community what’s happening in your life. And so if you say well, XYZ group approached me and I’ve never heard of them and they seem really nice and they talked about this and they talked about that. And keep in mind, not all of these groups called cults are religious. They can be political, they can be cultural, they can be based on martial arts, meditation, yoga, or a seminar series that helps you to become successful — or at least that’s what they purport to do like NXIVM — or it could be a multilevel marketing scheme.
So if you are plugged into a community and a family and you have people around you that you can bounce things off of and they give you more accurate feedback and a different perspective than the echo chamber of the group where they’re just constantly reinforcing their message. That gives you the opportunity to hear other voices and mix that as you begin to critically evaluate and analyze what’s going on in this new group that you’ve come into contact with.
Has the increase in internet use and forum participation, places where people find these online communities and think they substitute for physical communities, made this worse?
Yes, but at the same time, the internet affords all of us the opportunity to do a search and drill down and find out whatever information there is about a particular group or leader, which is what the Cult Education Institute at culteducation.com is all about. I launched the database in 1996 with the idea in mind that these groups would have to live with their history, whatever it might be. So controversial groups and movements are listed at the Cult Education Institute and people can find out what the history of that particular group or leader is. And then think about that before they become more involved.
But having said that, a lot of people don’t bother or just dismiss such information as being biased even though it may come from very good and reliable sources, for example, major wire services or court documents or police records. And then people — this is an increasing phenomenon that we see in so many areas of our life — people become isolated in a kind of bubble online that they create or that is created for them that they then enter into. And so what happens is they follow people on Twitter, they follow people on Instagram that are involved in this group or movement, and then they also identify with those Facebook accounts.
They go to the YouTube channel, the web platform of the group and they become completely consumed with the information that the group is putting out online. And this is to the exclusion of any other information to balance it. And so in a sense, they cocoon themselves online and it’s very hard to penetrate that. And it can become a reinforcing wall that is built around an individual that we don’t see, but they live in it on a daily basis.
We predispose ourselves into being vulnerable because we dismiss cults as crazy. We basically insinuate that the victims are to blame, that there must be something wrong with them. And by doing so we engage in a process of denial; we eliminate the possibility that we might be vulnerable. And yet, we are vulnerable through advertising, negative political ads, to propaganda and persuasion techniques on a daily basis.
That’s what advertising and political campaigns are all about. Persuasion, trying to pull us in. And we see how viable that is and how many people are pulled in. So what I would advise people to do is learn the tricks of the trade. The basic building blocks of persuasion techniques. For example, Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, which identifies the consistent themes used in advertising and in destructive cults to persuade people and influence them and bring them in. And then Edgar Schein of MIT wrote the book Coercive Persuasion, which is quite good. And then there’s the seminal work by Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Lifton studied North Korean POW camps and how the North Koreans were able to break down their prisoners and basically co-op their critical thinking and create a kind of mindset that they crafted through coercive persuasion. I think if we understand the tricks of the trade and I have a chapter on that in my book that I call “Cult Brainwashing” because that’s the term that’s used so often.
It becomes much more difficult to trick us if we know how the game is played.
And I think it’s important to consider how technology is starting to create a sense of loneliness in the world that may not have been there before. Do we need to address that fundamental?
Young people, even children alone in their bedrooms, are on their smartphone, they’re on their laptop, and they’re online, and they are susceptible to being recruited in their own home. Their parents may be watching cable or Netflix in the next room and they don’t know that their child, alone in another room in the house, is being indoctrinated on YouTube, or has come into contact with people involved in a cult.
And I think that families do become very vulnerable in that sense. I’ve had families call me and say, “I did not realize what was going on under my own roof.” And I think in that sense, families need to be more informed and more involved in each other’s lives so that they know what’s going on before things get out of control.
I wonder, at a societal level, whether we can build back some of these pillars of family, of community.
The internet is in and of itself not good or bad. It’s the way that it’s being used by people. And I think we could use it in a very positive way or it can be used in a very negative way. I think it’s important not to allow yourself to be consumed in any kind of bubble that can’t be permeated by alternate ideas and other frames of reference so that you can speculate better in your head. So much of what goes on in our society right now — and this is where I see cult-like tendencies — is the polarization of people basically hunkering down in their respective bonkers not willing to exchange ideas with the other side of a situation, whether it be in politics or just in social interaction.
Rick, I’m curious how this all began for you. How does somebody become an expert on cult behavior and cult deprogramming?
My grandmother was confronted by a radical fringe group that infiltrated the paid professional staff of the nursing home that she lived in. And she told me that she had been accosted by one of these people that tried to recruit her and I dug into it because I wanted to protect her. She was at the time 82 and I talked to the nursing home director and found out eventually through an investigation that there were five members of the paid staff that were affiliated with this group. Needless to say, they were fired and I found myself being an anti-cult activist-slash-community organizer in Phoenix in the early ’80s. And that evolved to working at a social service agency, an education bureau being appointed to various committees. And then I started doing intervention work with the staff psychologist at the social service agency that I worked at.
And all kinds of people came in that were followers of seminar gurus, religious cults, political cults, a wide spectrum. And by the end of the ’80s, I started traveling, doing individual interventions for families all over the U.S., and that led to my becoming a private intervention specialist. Since then I’ve done 500-plus interventions, not only across the United States but in Canada, Europe, all over the world. I’ve worked in Australia, Israel, Greece. You name it, I’ve been there. I found that this is a global phenomenon, and my work beginning in the ’90s included testifying as an expert in court cases. I’ve been qualified, accepted, and testified in 10 states, including the United States federal court.
That’s fascinating. When you’re brought in to try to get somebody out of a cult, is there a typical process?
First of all, the family has become alarmed, concerned about the influence of a group or leader over a loved one. They go through a process of assessment and study and then they contact somebody like myself if they wish to do an intervention. And then I work with families to prepare them to do such an intervention. It’s very similar to a drug or alcohol intervention in which the family is directly involved. Could be parents, could be the adult children of a parent, could be a boyfriend, spouse, girlfriend. You bring together people that really care and who are involved in that person’s life, who that person cares about and respects, and you stage an intervention, which begins as a surprise.
And then the person agrees to continue to discuss the family’s concerns over a period of typically three to four days. So the intervention may last eight hours a day for three or four days. And during that time, we discuss the definition of a destructive cult and how it might apply to the group or leader that you are now involved in, to what forms of influence we identify as typical of cults, and how might they parallel the group or leader that you have become involved with. And then what are your family’s concerns? Why are they here? Why are they alarmed about your life in a way that they weren’t before, what has changed?
And the family then basically talks about what has occurred in recent months or recent years that has escalated to the point that they decided to do an intervention. And then finally, what is the history of the group that you’re involved in that you should know in order to make a more informed decision about continuing with the group or leader?
And so those four basic building blocks are drawn upon during the intervention, which is an ongoing discussion. There may be documentation shared, court records, police records, et cetera, and the person then at the end will decide whether they want to continue with the group, take a break, or drop out of the group entirely.
My success rate has been about 70%, which means seven out of 10 people that I work with will decide to terminate their involvement with the group or leader at the end of the intervention. With three out of 10, they’ll leave probably in the first day or two saying that they don’t wish to continue, and then they’ll move on with the group.
Is there a certain demographic or socioeconomic bracket that tends to join cults because it does seem like it ranges widely?
Alex, it really does. I’ve done interventions with five medical doctors, including an orthopedic surgeon, an anesthesiologist, a gastrointestinal specialist. One intervention I did was with a woman who was a clinical psychologist, board-certified. And so it can happen to anyone. I’ve worked with people that come from very wealthy families, people that come from very typical middle-class families, people that are very educated, people that are blue-collar and working in a trade. So it varies very much, there’s no one consistent profile of a person that is involved in a destructive cult, but rather, as I said before, there may be a thread that you could pull, which is that the person involved is frequently going through a difficult time when they’re initially approached and therefore more susceptible, more vulnerable to the recruitment process.
I’m curious what happened with NXIVM and why it’s gotten all this attention recently?
Well, my first encounter with NXIVM was doing a series of interventions for a family in New Jersey in — I believe it was 2001 and 2002. And then I published an analysis by two prominent doctors, one a forensic psychiatrist and one a clinical psychologist who reviewed notes from the training manual of NXIVM, which was then known as Executive Success Programs. And subsequently, I was sued by Keith Raniere, the founder of NXIVM, and he pursued me and harassed me in court for almost 14 years until shortly before his arrest. And what Raniere did — and they called him Vanguard, that was his name in NXIVM — was he created a seminar series of courses to educate people about how they could become more productive and more successful in business or whatever they pursued in life.
He called the philosophy that he downloaded through his seminar series Rational Inquiry and he recruited many notable people. For example, two heiresses to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, Clare Bronfman, who’s now in prison for her part in NXIVM, and her sister, Sara Bronfman. Briefly, Edgar Bronfman Sr., a multibillionaire and the father of the Bronfman sisters, attended NXIVM, but he quickly realized that something was terribly wrong and he called it a cult, which would cause him a great deal of grief for many years being estranged from his daughters.
Other people that became involved were Allison Mack, the TV star from the Superman series Smallville. Kristin Kreuk also from that series. Nicki Clyne from Battlestar Galactica, and she’s still a die-hard follower as recently as a month or two ago of Keith Raniere. There are still probably 100 people, even though Raniere has been convicted of multiple felonies, including sex trafficking and racketeering, and he’s now sentenced to 120 years in prison. He still has devoted followers that feel he’s a martyr, that he was persecuted. They say, as Clare Bronfman did when she was sentenced, that she derived much good from NXIVM regardless of how many people were hurt.
But NXIVM created a kind of community in Albany, New York, where people would travel from all over the world to be near Keith Raniere as they would regard him the “font of knowledge.” This incredible philosopher king, this guru who taught them a philosophy that they felt would cure anything in their lives, and over a period of years, there were thousands and thousands of people that would go through this seminar series. Many would become disenchanted and would leave, many of those people would call me. And I would talk to, I would guess, hundreds of people over the period of more than a decade that had been affected by NXIVM.
It seems like these self-help groups tend to be a perfect breeding ground for cult-like behavior. Do you agree with that and if so, why do you think that is?
Well, I think that the bottom line is, what is a self-help seminar group all about? I called them LGATs, large-group awareness training. And you get in a room, you do a weekend. Some of these programs can last more than a week. Raniere had I think a 14-, 16-day intensive. People pay a lot of money for this, there’s a lot of money moving. Millions of dollars in many of these groups and basically what you’re paying for is to have this seminar guru tell you the meaning of life and download their philosophy as a panacea cure-all for everything.
They say it will heal your soul, it will take care of your personal problems, your business problems. It’s one cure for everything, it’s a cure-all. And people become involved in it and once they do become involved, many of them become seminar junkies, and of course, this is encouraged by and enabled by the group and the other people around you. And you become embedded in a subculture of these guru junkies and you’re not really hearing other voices. And in the case of Raniere, the group evolved from a seminar group to a full-fledged cult when he became an object of worship and exercised totalitarian control over the people in the group.
And for those that don’t know, it became a sex cult and Raniere would use and abuse women to the point where finally he tortured them. He branded reportedly more than a hundred women with his initials engraved in their flesh with a cauterizing iron, wielded by a doctor who was devoted to Raniere and assisted by people like Allison Mack who would literally hold victims down as they screamed in pain without any painkiller, any anesthetic, and this cauterizing iron would be used to brand their pelvis with Raniere’s initials.
It goes back to the idea that when community is lacking, something can come in and fill the void. In this case, it was NXIVM.
Well, there were many people that left. For example, as you know from watching The Vow or Seduced on Starz Network, Catherine Oxenberg and her ex-husband, Casper Van Dien, the actor, became involved. But they realized that there was something wrong and they left. Unfortunately, India Oxenberg, Catherine’s daughter, continued with the group and she was involved for years before, finally after Raniere’s arrest, she got out. She actually was being micromanaged by her coach, Allison Mack, who was a slave master or mistress over this inner group that Raniere created called DOS, in which all of these women were told they had to obey this hierarchy with supposedly Allison Mack and Lauren Salzman at the top.
Right now, Allison Mack is awaiting final sentencing. She probably will go to prison for a number of years. Clare Bronfman was sentenced to almost seven years and fined millions of dollars for her involvement in enabling Raniere and financing him. The Bronfman sisters gave Raniere reportedly over $100 million during their involvement with the group. And then a woman that was a co-founder of NXIVM, Nancy Salzman, is also awaiting sentencing. And a bookkeeper, a woman by the name of Harris, who was also involved.
I want to spend the last few minutes talking about QAnon, a group that believes there are folks coming after Trump and that he’s going to save people from a cabal of pedophiles, something along those lines. I’m curious how you began to be interested in QAnon and whether they fit the definition of a cult.
I gained interest when it became apparent that they were highly organized and that they were involved in activities in which they were targeting people, issues, politicians, et cetera. I think that QAnon fits the criteria for a destructive cult with one exception. We don’t know who Q is. Who is the person that perpetuates these conspiracy theories and drops them online? According to the organization or according to the followers, Q is some high-level, top-secret clearance individual in government with access to secrets that none of us could ever access without Q.
But that isn’t necessarily the truth. It’s very likely just a myth, and Q could be a person or a collective or just a scam. What’s interesting is that like many cults, Q uses a front organizational name in order to attract attention and recruits. They pose behind the moniker “Save the Children.” Now, there’s a real organization called Save the Children that is very reputable and it’s been around for a very long time. But QAnon would like to take that mantle and say, “Oh, we’re trying to save children from this pedophile conspiracy that includes all kinds of political leaders, et cetera.” And at times, this can be very volatile, when you look at the QAnon demonstrations and you see how people don’t question anything that is coming from QAnon by and large.
And they are also very invasive, even deceptive, about who and what they’re all about. They don’t want to divulge some of the more bizarre aspects of their conspiracy theories, but would rather say, “Oh we’re just here to save children,” when in reality that’s not all that they’re about.
Do you find it concerning that some of the behavior you’ve seen in cults has started to make its way into our mainstream politics?
Yeah, it’s very scary. It’s scary to think that someone in a position of power is making decisions based on their acceptance of conspiracy theories that have been repeatedly debunked and disproven. And what kind of national secrets or what position in national security will a person have who’s elected to congress and how will it affect their thinking and their performance on the job if they’ve bought in bizarre conspiracy theories perpetuated by QAnon. It’s a real conundrum and a real problem and I don’t think it’s going to get better. I think before it does get better, it’ll get worse.
We started by talking about how the internet can be a fertile recruiting ground for cults, and what do you know? This is something that lives almost entirely online and now it’s seeping into the physical world.
What I said about cocooning yourself in a bubble online, in an echo chamber, is exactly what so many QAnon supporters do. They feed off of each other, they reinforce each other, they follow each other on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, and they watch each other on YouTube. Now, some of the social media platforms are beginning to regulate this and purge some of it from their platforms, but by and large, these people can create their own alternate reality online, which is very scary. I’ve dealt with them trolling my sites, trolling my social media, and when I interact with them, they’re so detached from reality, it’s almost impossible to communicate. Very much like a person that’s delusional and under the undue influence of a cult.