Cult recruitment goes into orbit
Evening Standard (London), January 28, 2000
By Lynne Wallis
Alison West-Eacott’s 23-year-old face wears an impassive expression as she enters a hotel room with her parents, counsellor Graham Baldwin, and a former member of one of the most active cults in London, the Church of Christ. Alison’s only stipulation before agreeing to the meeting is that an ex-cult member, with Christianity still intact, be present. It is an ‘exit’ meeting, and Alison’s companions are intent on getting her out of the clutches of the cultists.
As the new millennium unfolds, so does Domesday madness. Cult recruitment campaigns are in overdrive, and exit meetings like this will become only too common. As Michelle Shirley, of the Cult Information Centre, comments, ‘Cults are tapping into people’s anxieties, even their optimism, in the year 2000. Lots of people will be feeling positive, and cults will use the line: “We have teachings that will really help you to make a difference in the millennium.” The point is to get recruits into a gradual drift towards commitment, and the more you go in that direction, the harder it is to pull back.’ The attraction to cults, thinks Lady Daphne Vane, of the voluntary organisation FAIR (Family, Action, Information, Resource), is an extension of people’s search for alternatives, whether in diet and health, lifestyle or religion – but for cult leaders, it’s a matter of big business and market forces.
Graham Baldwin, 47, a former university chaplain and army intelligence officer, is one of two ‘exit counsellors’ in Britain who help families rescue damaged cult members. A rotund figure with grey hair and a measured manner, he is a far cry from the macho Seventies-style exit counsellor ‘PJ’ played by Harvey Keitel in the film Holy Smoke (released in March), in which Keitel ‘exits’ cult member Kate Winslet and, against all the rules, falls in love with her. Baldwin, who works in New Malden, South London, has successfully retrieved hundreds of children whose families had almost lost hope.
When Alison is presented with written evidence of financial dealings within the Church of Christ, her demeanour becomes increasingly anxious. Gone is the impenetrable look cultists wear when outsiders argue against their leaders’ ‘philosophy’. She fiddles with her hands and bites her lip constantly as more information is revealed. As ex-cult members put it, Alison’s ‘light has come on’. But not before she has dedicated more than a year of her young life, and considerable amounts of money, to the cause. Alison learns that a cult leader she believed earned £500 a month is on a total annual package of around £70,000. When, finally, after several hours of discussion and debate, she asks the question, ‘If I leave the group, will I still be saved?’ Baldwin knows he has won. And Alison’s parents breathe an enormous sigh of relief.
Cult movements escalated during the Seventies, and there are now approximately 1,500 around the world. About 500 cults are now active in Britain, most of them with branches in London, a fertile recruitment ground of lonely, vulnerable young people. The Internet, too, is posing a new threat, with cults putting supposedly rational arguments across as bait to tempt new recruits. The Jesus Christians are just one cult who recruit via the Net, predicting the imminent end of the world, and declaring that only their members will be saved.
Betty Millar, from South London, lost her daughter Lucy, now 26, to the International Church of Christ in 1997. Convent-educated Lucy, who had a Saturday job at Harrods to supplement her grant, was invited by a colleague to attend a COC rally, disguised as ‘women’s day’, at Wembley. One session proved enough to convert her.
Although Betty sees her daughter once a week, her anguish is evident. Her voice breaking with emotion, she says, ‘After just one meeting, Lucy was different. I didn’t know her. She had a glazed look on her face. If only she hadn’t gone to that meeting. I can’t believe that’s all it took. Whatever they tell them must be so powerful, it’s unimaginable.’ Lucy lives with other disciples in a single-sex household, and has immersed herself totally in the COC. Cult experts say the tactics used by the Church of Christ can cause severe psychiatric problems for members who try to leave. They are told who to date and marry, and even have lessons in how to make love. Questioning orders is called ‘devil’s talk’.
Baldwin initially helped parents whose children were being targeted by cults at London’s King’s College, where he studied theology in the Eighties and later became student chaplain. ‘The stories were so appalling, I just couldn’t not help,’ he says. ‘There’s no particular type of person whom cults target, but they do tend to be at a turning point in their lives, perhaps just divorced, or maybe they’ve lost their job, or they might just be feeling unfulfilled, seeking change.’
In the USA parents pay up to $1,000 a day for debriefing, but Baldwin’s organisation, Catalyst, is a registered charity and 90 per cent of his work is for free. ‘Catalyst is not anti every cult or new religious movement,’ says Baldwin. ‘Cults do damage when coercive techniques are used that do not benefit the individual. This breeds an unhealthy dependence on a group. It comes down to what is legally termed “undue influence”. Cults give members new rules to live by, and they have so much pressure put on them that they end up believing the leader who says, “If you don’t give me your money to help us follow Jesus, you will go to hell”. ‘
Cult techniques start with control of a recruit’s time. They are bombarded with phone calls and made to feel powerless as their identity is stripped away. All recruits are ‘lovebombed’ with affectionate messages of the cult’s ‘love’ for them, but as ex-members readily point out, it’s a phoney love which evaporates when a recruit is hooked.
While Baldwin is firmly opposed to the ‘kidnapping’ of cult members by families (he believes it is too traumatising for the victim and too similar to the brainwashing that landed them there in the first place), former Children of God member Kristina Jones, 23, says if it’s the only option, it has to be done. If the cult member can make their own decision, thinks Baldwin, they can retain their dignity and integrity. But leaders may oppress the victim to such an extent that they’re not allowed outside.
Kristina was born into the Children of God (also known as The Family) and was sexually active with male members from the age of seven. This was part of the late Children of God leader and paedophile ‘Moses’ David Berg’s ‘sharing’ philosophy, which taught that adults and children alike should never be denied the joy of sex. She had sex with her stepfather, many other members, and, at the age of 11, with government officials in India to try to secure visas for Children of God devotees. Kristina suffered appalling abuse under the cult’s strictly disciplinarian regime. Her mother was thrown out of the cult when Kristina was 11 for questioning the rules, and Kristina left a year later and settled in London with her mother and some of her siblings. She has since made a fresh start in Nottingham, and was consulted by the makers of Holy Smoke.
Kristina says, ‘Those who join cults feel in control, although they are actually in the control of the movement. They feel safe, a sense of belonging, that they’ve found what they’ve always wanted, even though they are being told what this is. The more lost a person is, the more likely they are to feel that the cult is “it”. What makes exiting from the cult so difficult is countering the relief they feel that their search is over. They don’t let go of that easily.’
Talking about her experiences to cult members helps them realise they don’t have any ‘unique’ knowledge. Kristina explains, ‘They think no one else knows what they know. When you start to get through, their pride is hurt because they have been so gullible.’ Successfully exiting someone from a cult can be instantaneous, or it may take time, depending on whether the exit counsellor says something that clicks with the cult member. Someone’s light might be turned on, for example, by a counsellor asking, ‘If Jesus wanting all cult members to engage in free love is “the truth”, why does it need coercive techniques to get people to accept it?’
Cult experts say it’s crucial for parents to maintain contact with their children. For leaders to have total control over new recruits, they have to encourage alienation from parents, family and friends. But often, panic-stricken parents aggressively try to reclaim their children, and then allow a rift to develop after the inevitable failure. This desertion is precisely what cult leaders predict families will do.
FAIR is so concerned about the growth of cults that it is calling for government action to tackle the problem, and for new measures to lessen the damage cults are able to do – for example, enforcing a cooling-off period, so that new members’ cheques can’t be cashed for two weeks. A London judge who cannot be named recently returned from a holiday to find his mother-in-law in the grip of an Indian-based ‘spiritual movement’. She had signed over one third of her £450,000 estate upon her death, as well as the purchase price of a top-brand car, to one of the cult’s leaders. Her son-in-law commented, ‘These cults seem to have found a new market: frail elderly men and women with means. They told my mother-in-law we’d deserted her and that we didn’t care about her. She was feeling vulnerable, and she caved in. The return of the money isn’t so important, but it’s sad that these cults achieve their aims by telling their targets to walk away from their loving families.’
FAIR wants health warnings issued on cults, especially around university campuses, and for ‘mental kidnapping’ to be made a criminal offence. Former Conservative Home Office Minister Tom Sackville says, ‘We are naturally contemptuous of the pseudo-religious rubbish that cults use to manipulate their members. They are like child abusers and drug dealers in terms of the damage they do. The problem is, cults are viewed by those who advise ministers in strictly legal terms, because they recruit consenting adults. We should look to European initiatives for inspiration.’ The French government has a 19-strong council on cults made up of MPs, academics and cult specialists, and the fight is slowly entering the public domain. Here, we have a group called Inform which has just re-secured a government grant to provide information and to inform government policy on cult movements. However, Inform is widely criticised for being too pro-cult, and for benefiting from too much ‘cult hospitality’. The Cult Information Centre feels that, far from tackling the problem, Inform is becoming part of it. It has the British Council of Churches as a member but, according to critics, churchmen won’t favour anti-cult legislation for fear of losing their own freedoms.
The Sai Baba cult, whose origins are in India, says it is a ‘service’ organisation whose aim is to help the poor. It emerged in the Seventies and has an estimated half a million devotees worldwide, with about 200,000 in Britain. Many of these members are in London, and actively recruiting. Sai Baba’s namesake is believed to be more powerful than God, the Buddha, and Mohammed. Devotees believe he can create sacred dust with health-giving powers out of thin air, and last year the cult converted many members of the cast of Grease to its cause. Sarah Miles is a believer; so is the founder of the Hard Rock Caf, multimillionaire Isaac Tigrett. Experts say that when Europeans devote themselves to Sai, they go for it 100 per cent.
However, as fast as cults are recruiting new members, the lights of people like David Bailey are coming on. A former disciple of Sai Baba, and the leader’s right-hand man in the West for four years, Bailey, a 44-year-old concert pianist with a religious background, got sucked into the cult after meeting Sai and being totally overwhelmed by him. He left, disillusioned, a year ago, when it became clear to him that the cult was ‘evil’. Bailey says, ‘I got drawn in because Sai Baba genuinely seemed to be doing good, and the people who introduced me to him were so convincing. I’ve always been someone who searches for different things, and, foolishly, I believed he was God.’
Sai Baba has been exposed as a fraud on Irish and Australian TV, and a showcase hospital in India which was ostensibly built to help the poor is, in fact, 80 per cent empty and charging high fees. There are also allegations of bodily organ sales to wealthy Arabs. Bailey says the leader’s ‘magic dust’ is a mixture of cow dung and sandalwood. Bailey’s stepson was, he claims, coerced into a French-kissing session with the cult leader, having been told it was an introduction to Tantric sex and would improve his ‘kundalini spirit’. There has been an attempt on the leader’s life, and several young men have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse against him. Their testimonies can be found on the Internet.
Sai Baba’s days, however, may be numbered. The man who thinks he is God recently became ill. Bailey concludes, ‘Lots of people are beginning to wonder about his immortality. If he really is God, he wouldn’t have had a heart attack, would he?’