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Amanda Coetzee

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Cult – a four letter word?

The definition of a cult in its simplest terms is any group that uses abusive and/or manipulative methods to attract and retain members. How do I know this? I spent an awful lot of time researching cults and their membership as background material for my third novel, Flaming June. It’s a disturbing and compelling topic.

Most people consider themselves too emotionally or intellectually aware to fall prey to the machinations of a cult, but it’s humbling to find out that this simply isn’t the case. If the wrong people manage to insinuate themselves into your life at the right time, then you too might find yourself joining an organisation that only later, reveals its more sinister intent. Of course by then you won’t know it’s a cult, because you will have become entirely dependent on and submissive to the doctrine of the organisation. Need love and unconditional acceptance? Join us. Want to change the world for the better, save your soul, make millions, tap into the power of the universe? Joins us. Whatever your need, you can be sure that the cult has anticipated and provided for it as they dangled the hook that drew you in.

Nobody joins a cult but people are singled out and invited to retreats, seminars, sales conferences or bible studies everyday. Nobody affiliates themselves willingly to a group that will by definition remove them from the world and place them at the bottom of the food chain in an elitist and closed structure.

They don’t need to.

The principles of thought reform remain the same whether your cult is religious, political, new-age/self help, gang related or commercial in nature; immerse the potential recruit in a high energy, emotionally powerful, loaded language environment and make sure that initially at least, any kooky ideas or cult like images are excluded. Use thought terminating cliches and exhausting activities that prevent independent and reasoned critical engagement with the message of the leadership and watch the tumble locks of resistance slowly become replaced by euphoric cooperation.

I am not sure which I found the most disturbing, that there are cults in every walk of life or that the systematic process required to change a person’s core beliefs is so readily documented. Whether you want to turn a potential political intelligence source or convince a couple that it’s acceptable for the leader to have sex with your underage children, thought reform, brainwashing, obliteration of the previous self is not that complicated. Don’t believe me? Spend a few sordid hours on google and trawl through the damage that cults have wrought in the lives of ordinary people.

Human beings are social animals and we need to belong, even if it is to a group that disdains formal and traditional society; so when does a community become a cult? Start asking questions when you are no longer free to act according to your own conscience or judgement or are so conditioned you can no longer differentiate between you and the group. Most importantly, when you find yourself threatened if you have doubts about leaving the organisation.

But then it is probably already too late.



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