Cults have always fascinated me in a gory, can't-stop-looking-at-it kind of way. I read Emma Cline's The Girls in a single sitting, marathon-watched Waco on Netflix, spent an evening scouring the internet for information about Jim Jones — and now I’m hooked on HBO's The Vow, a docuseries that follows the rise and demise of NXIVM, an alleged “sex cult”.
My main fascination is with how cults gain such a devoted following in the first place. Sure, during episode one of The Vow I was thinking, This doesn’t sound all that bad. But slowly the rules become stricter, the punishments for breaking them more extreme, the isolation from non-cult friends and family members more complete. By episode two, I was internally screaming: How are you not getting out?!
"If this hadn’t happened to me, I would have been the first to say, 'What an idiot. Why didn’t she just leave?'" Sarah Edmondson, one of NXIVM’s former top recruiters, previously told Refinery29. "The answer is that indoctrination is incredibly powerful."
I asked Rachel Bernstein, a therapist who has been working with victims of cults and emotional abusers for 27 years, to explain to me how people find themselves attracted by, then ensnared by, destructive cults. The process is surprisingly similar from cult to cult — and while it may look bizarre and extreme from the outside, it’s based on some pretty powerful psychological principles. She called out a few common themes that play a role in the indoctrination process.
Targeting vulnerable “recruits”
Someone who’s going through a difficult or questioning period in life is "going to be much more open to someone saying, ‘We can give you happiness. We can give you a community. We can give you immortality,’" says Bernstein, who hosts IndoctriNation, a podcast about cults and manipulators.
Nori Muster, for instance, joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness during her last year of college at UC Santa Barbara. "I was feeling really unhappy with the world and not wanting to go into that world when I graduated," says Muster, the author of Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life Behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement. The friend who brought her in later told Muster that he’d been taught about characteristics that made people easy to recruit — and that she was a perfect fit. "I was lost, I was a seeker, I was shy and confused. I didn’t understand the world that well, I was open to the philosophy," she says. "They can spot people a mile away."
Other targets: People who can offer the cult something, such as money, skills, or even charisma (which can be used to recruit others), Bernstein explains. In The Vow, for instance, Edmonson felt that she had been targeted because of her connections to Hollywood.
One thing cult members are not is stupid. "When you have average to above average intelligence, your brain wants to make sense of the information being given, and most cult information doesn't quite make sense, so you make it make sense in your mind," Bernstein explains. "You don't want to be the only one in the room who doesn't get it, because you're not used to being that person."
Making empty promises
"You get sucked in by something that speaks to you," Berstein says. A cult typically has a mission statement that’s easy to agree with: Do you care about children, or women’s empowerment, or becoming more successful? Once you say yes to that, they’ll try to get you to go to a meeting, or sign up for a class. Each step pulls you further into the cult.
"It just clicked for me. I felt like I had found the meaning of life and the answers to all of my questions and people who were really good, spiritual people," Muster describes, of her experience.
"That’s really the nature of how cults get you — by starting slow, promising to help you realize your goals," Edmonson said. "If someone had said early on, 'Hey, Sarah, can we brand you with our leader’s initials next to your crotch?,' I would have said, ‘That’s fucking crazy.’"
A mysterious, deified leader
"Typically, you know who the leader is, but you might not be 'honored enough' to be in his or her presence at first," says Bernstein. “New members don’t generally meet Keith [Raniere, NXIVM’s leader] until they’ve done several levels of training," Edmonson said. "Some people don’t meet him for two years.” During that time, though, they worship him. "He was totally deified," Edmonson said.
This sort of behavior helps engage people on a larger scale: "They’re trying to figure out who that person is and trying to solve that puzzle," Bernstein says.
Leading with love-bombing
Destructive cults use love-bombing to entrap new recruits. In other words, they treat you like a king or queen or rock star, Bernstein says. They talk you up, tell you how perfect you are, how great you make them feel. It’s intoxicating. (Love-bombing is also often used by abusers in the early days of a romantic relationship.)
Bernstein says that early on in a new member’s indoctrination, there's often a moment of "manufactured closeness". "Maybe someone will suddenly be stricken by the spirit or will be convulsing and need an exorcism or something very dramatic. It ties everyone together because it's like we survived this together. But usually it's manufactured," Bernstein says, adding that events like this are "created by the group to mimic community and connection, and to have it be so overpowering that you think it's more special and more meaningful than your connections on the outside." NXIVM’s infamous branding can be seen as an incidence of manufactured closeness. The experience bonded the group together… But it never had to happen.
Then comes the intermittent gratification, which is when cult leaders and other members begin to withhold their affection, only doling it out in intervals. As the love and validation goes away, the person thinks they’ve done something wrong, and they dive even deeper in an attempt to gain it back. "It's similar to why people gamble," Bernstein says.
Cults will usually frame their group in a way to appear as the only vehicle to reach certain seductive promises. Bernstein says that this is a marketing tactic known as "scarcity." "If you can only get it here, there's a much bigger draw and there's a much bigger dependence," she explains. Even though you never reach your end goal, you remain entrapped. "They'll say, if you just try harder, if you try these treatments from her, buy more of our product or anything else, your healing is right around the corner."
While you’re chasing your goals, you may not even notice how the cult is taking over your life — and separating you from friends and family. "Groups usually have their own lingo," Bernstein explains. "So they speak a language that is English, but used in different ways. It cuts you off from society outside and no longer quote unquote understands," she explains.
Food & sleep deprivation
One of the many shocking revelations depicted in The Vow is the food deprivation members were subjected to. But Bernstein says this, and sleep deprivation, is entirely common. Narcissistic or sociopathic leaders "enjoy seeing what people will do to themselves for you," she explains.
Being deprived of food and sleep makes it harder to think and manage your emotions, making you vulnerable to more manipulation. The cult may point out that you seem emotional, and as Bernstein says: "They happen to have a class for that, or there's another Bible study for that, and they just give you more and more of the medicine that's making you sick and you keep thinking there's something wrong with you."
"One of the things that can be helpful in terms of an explanation is to look at the ways in which cults are similar to abusive relationships," Edmonson continued. "Nobody seeks out an abusive partner, but so many people stay in these relationships longer than they should — they make excuses, they ignore red flags, and they allow themselves to be emotionally manipulated."
There are resources available for those who eventually escape a cult’s clutches. Bernstein recommends the International Cultic Studies Association and a program she helped create called Stronger After, which provides five free meetings to those who are newly out of abusive environments.