Why Do Women Fall For Cult Leaders?

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John Hawkes & Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011).
Cults are fascinating, aren’t they? It’s almost impossible to imagine what it’s like to be lured in, have your life taken over by manipulative strangers, and lose yourself to a cause, an idea or a person. Only, it’s not impossible at all, once you know a little about how they operate. The ways cults recruit new members are frighteningly familiar – and we’re all susceptible.
I spent an afternoon with Dr. Alexandra Stein in her London home. She is an academic on the topic of cults and has just published a book called Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. She is also qualified by personal experience, having spent a decade in the Marxist-Leninist cult known as The O. She worked two full-time jobs, got married, had children and lived in a lonely compound throughout her time as part of that cult, and emerged a spectre of the idealistic young woman she had been. Since then, she has reclaimed her life by studying the psychology of cults and is now doggedly determined to educate people, particularly in how to spot the warning signs that you’re being sucked in. That might sound strange – surely you would know if you were being recruited by a cult? – but it’s a subtler and more engrossing process than you might expect. It’s a lot like falling in love with someone who ends up abusing you.
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"The way I talk about cult leaders is that they have a dangerous combination of charisma and authoritarianism," says Dr. Stein. "It’s the same way we talk about domestic abusers. A relationship with a domestic abuser starts in much the same way as a relationship with a cult. They both start with something we call 'love bombing'. It’s a lot of attention, though not necessarily always positive attention; there can be an edge to it. There’s a lot of attraction, attentiveness and flattery, and both cults and abusers will make you feel special – it’s very seductive."
Where a man (and it usually is a man) may promise love, sex, security or companionship, a cult leader will promise revolution, solidarity, money, or enlightenment. Where a man may profess love early, say they’ve never met anyone like you before, and sweep you off your feet, a cult leader will come on extremely strong about your unique need to be a part of the group. It’s a deliberate showering of attention and affection that can flatter you into a vulnerable position.
"Then comes the isolation," says Dr. Stein. "You start with all the attentiveness, then you start isolating that person from their friends and family. That’s when you engulf them in a new life or belief system. The engulfment part in a boyfriend situation can feel very nice, it’s the falling in love part, when it’s all 'Let’s go out every night, you don’t need to see your girlfriends'. You want to see the person all the time in the throes of love, or what passes for it."
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Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, followers of Charles Manson, attend court.
Obviously not all intense love turns into abuse, but most abuse starts out as intense love. It should be alarming, if a partner or leader of a group tries to cut you off from everyone you know and love. That’s a sinister move, and we need to be vigilant about spotting it. "It’s ok to have a honeymoon period, but it should be worrying if that lasts – if they keep saying, 'Darling, I should be enough, you don’t need your family or your friends'. It’s the same in a cult, only they’ll say, 'We have all the answers, you don’t need anyone else, it’s only our meetings and our guidance that you need'. It starts out as one meeting with them and then, all of a sudden, you need to come five times a week and the weekends as well. It’s a takeover of your whole life."
The immediate objective for a cult and an abuser might be to steal all your time, but the objective is bigger. "Both the cult and the abusive person want to have absolute control over the victim. If they let you have relationships with outside people, those people might say, 'Hey, you’re being exploited'. But if it’s just you, you can be exploited in any number of ways; financially, sexually, or with labour."
"Once you’re in that person’s domain, that’s where the fear and violence comes in. It doesn’t have to be physical – that’s why the new British coercive control law is so wonderful. It can be isolation, controlling your money and communications, taking your phone away, frightening you but not necessarily physically, and it can be through threats. These things very much apply to both cults and domestic abuse. All of it is about arousing fear in the victim. Once you’re fearful and they’re the only person you’ve got, you will go towards the only resource you have, which is the person who is frightening you. If I’m frightened I go and see my friend or call my mum, it’s instinctive. But when the only person left is the frightening person, you are trapped. You’re trapped emotionally, clinging to them, hoping they alleviate the pain, but that never happens so you end up in a feedback loop of fear. From there, you cognitively dissociate and become unable to think about the situation you’re in. That’s why it’s so hard to understand, from the outside. People say, 'Why doesn’t she just leave?' about someone in a relationship, and 'Why didn’t they just leave?' about someone in a cult. They’re trapped there by a trauma bond and unable to think clearly for themselves."
For more information, support and help if you or someone you know may be in a domestic abuse situation, please visit Refuge or call 0808 2000 247.
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