Joan Didion wrote that “the paranoia” of the volatile Sixties “was fulfilled” on August 9, 1969, the night that the Manson Family murdered five people, including actress Sharon Tate, on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles. Less than a decade later came the absolute shock of Jonestown, when 918 human beings died in the mass suicide and murder by the Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. These events ignited American cult terror on a grand scale, casting an ominous shadow on any and all unfamiliar religions and sects—a shadow that stretched further with the calamities of the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate in the 1990s.
“The press, by and large, featured the pornography…the body count, the details on the condition of the corpses,” the prominent religion scholar Jonathan Z. Smith wrote. It was true of all those events, though Smith spoke of Jonestown. “Everything was sensational. Almost no attempt was made to gain any interpretive framework.” Critical cult narratives had already been circulating in TIME, Newsweek, and other publications since the Manson killings, but after Jim Jones they darkened and proliferated. Cult-defector memoirs and TV news stories took hold. From there, the cult genre became an ever-growing commercial success, building to a recent deluge of streaming documentaries about such notorious groups already mentioned as well as Scientology, Remnant Fellowship, Buddhafield, NXIVM, and many more.
Audiences appear to love cult stories because of the alien elements they depict—the preposterous theology and bylaws, the theatric effect of their homogeneous and unstylish dress, the indecently ecstatic faces in ritual, the wanton or restricted sexuality, the torture, and, most of all, the eccentric, monstrous leader who dreamt it all up. When adult converts tell their exit stories, they usually begin with an introduction to the organization by either a deceitful recruiter, a friend, or, increasingly, a Google search. These narratives often tell of brainwashing, also known as coercive control, used to force followers into deeper collusion as problems escalate. “It could happen to anyone,” they warn. The ex-members may engage in some self-inquiry, but ultimately, they place responsibility on the leaders.
Immediately after I left Open Heart Meditation, in October of 2009, I clung to that familiar cult narrative when recounting the ordeal to friends and family. I’d say that a guy, who I thought had romantic potential, tricked me into joining a dangerous organization. But as I began to write my story, such assertions appeared distorted; as I wrote I remembered more of my own layered motives and choices in each interaction with that man and his group. Over the years, even the word cult frayed, until, line by line, a startlingly different story emerged.
On a sunny Santa Monica day in January 2009, the pit of the Great Recession, I’d arranged to meet Brandon† as part of a New Year’s resolution to explore job opportunities. He was a thirtysomething author and tech consulant. Starbucks was his pick. We sat at a green outdoor table on Third Street, where I spotted, with a mix of curiosity and distrust, his leather bracelet that said love. He listened intently as I expressed frustration with my job as an online food editor. A career shift would be tough in the wrecked economy, Brandon agreed, and told me that to stay sane in these tumultuous times he’d joined a life-changing meditation group. Later, as I narrativized my experience, it was difficult to think of this as a set-up, since I was the one who’d extracted an invitation.
Four days after that meeting, I arrived at a tidy residential complex ringed by equally tidy lawns. Entering the orbit of an unfamiliar spiritual organization, I wanted to be open-minded, but I was also on guard for any whiff of cultishness. I was certain I’d spot the red flags from a safe distance: philosophical fundamentalism, money grubbing, or a narcissistic leader with some pastoral compound. I was disappointed that Brandon couldn’t attend that night, but his friend Ian escorted me to a chair under a large teak mandala hanging on the wall. I noted—because of how rare it was—that the group of about fifteen was without a racial majority, filled with people whose backgrounds were Korean, European, Filipino, Latino, African, Middle Eastern, and now there was me—a woman of half-Ashkenazi, half-Greek descent.
Maria, a real estate agent, opened with a lesson on the methodology of Open Heart Meditation: Lightly place a finger of your right hand on the center of your chest, close your eyes, and softly smile. These were the teachings of the group’s founder, Irmansyah Effendi, who had grown up in Indonesia but now lived in Australia. Maria carefully avoided the word guru, but when Brandon later laid it on me, I’d wince, as I did now each time Maria told us to smile softly or repeated the syrupy name of the practice. Open Heart Meditation-really?
I could never have admitted it to myself back then, but my primary motive for being there was to try to date Brandon. Since he wasn’t in attendance, I focused on the meditation. I had been wanting to acquire this kind of habit, despite having grown up in 1980s and ’90s yuppie Los Angeles with an understanding that spiritual pursuits were for simpler people. In the diluted ancestral traditions my family observed, food comforted us, not spirituality—that is, we knew of no love greater than what we circulated between one another. After three generations of rigorous assimilation, we revered fine art, PBS, California cuisine, and the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings. Only in my midtwenties did it occur to me that a central purpose of religion was to provide some of the emotional necessities I’d gone around blindly collecting and naming myself, as if I were on a fairy-tale quest, or the first person on Earth.
As Maria pressed play on a recording of Irman leading the half-hour meditation, I forced my half-assed smile into a bigger one and mentally connected to the place a few inches under my clavicle, where I held my finger. I began to notice real warmth, a sensation like puddling bath water, around my heart. My shoulders relaxed away from my ears and, over the next several minutes, the feeling evolved into a thrilling, rushing inward movement.
Sensory deprivation from meditation may cause compensating hallucinogenic effects; smiling can prompt happiness; and touch may cause relaxation by activating the vagus nerve. Meanwhile, Maria’s reminders to surrender to it all created a riveting biofeedback loop. But this hardly explains the experience generated by the aggregate mesh of those reactions, nor how I even existed to encounter it. “Science is not only compatible with spirituality,” Carl Sagan said, “it is a profound source of spirituality.”
So is desire. Another key influence was at play: the explosive want I was carrying with me at that time of my life, the twilight of my young adulthood.
At twenty-eight, just as I was supposed to be coming into my own, I felt obstructed in every direction. The recession had penned me into a job I’d begun to hate. Every few months at Yahoo!, where I worked as the food editor, an executive appeared on a teleconference screen in front of a backdrop of purple to announce another round of mass layoffs. None of us understood how they’d offered the new CEO a $47 million compensation package. To attract and retain users, we ran articles that appealed to their base emotions, like Best and Worst listicles about fast food.Although I was excruciatingly far from the substantive writing I felt called to do, I kept forcing myself into poses of gratitude and then excoriating myself when I popped out of them.
I was tangled in the knot of my family of origin, too. Seated next to my father’s pale but imposing figure at Chanukah dinner, I’d been feeling close as our conversation wandered from the increase in US troops in Afghanistan to our latest workplace wins. But when I dared mention looking for another job in the abysmal economic climate, the mood broke as my father looked at me through his gold-rimmed glasses and actually sneered at my optimism. Humiliation was often the delivery mechanism for his opinions and safeguards, though he doted on me, too. I never quite knew where I stood, and fantasized that if I met his expectations perfectly, he might reply more routinely to my emails or invite me to more dinners at his and my stepmother’s house. I’d stopped trying to express to him my hurt about any of that because he blocked these conversations by calling me dramatic.
In the early years, my mother had been under-equipped to deal with my willfulness. We used to drive around L.A.—me in jean shorts and her in long arty skirts—singing along to the Police, stopping for a thousand after-school frozen yogurts, and fighting relentlessly, dementedly, over little I can remember. I’d push, and she’d dissolve into tears, maybe let slip her go-to insult: Spoiled brat! Or she’d say: I’ll never forgive you. Because my father was the steadier option, I chose, at age twelve, to live with him after my parents’ divorce. My mother never spoke of the marital split, only of my leaving her. As a young adult, I kept trying to wear down the boulder of guilt in my gut by attempting to resemble the good daughter I’d failed to be as a child.
Predictably, given all of this, my romantic life was not panning out. Among my tight circle of friends, the first couples were marrying off, and I was far from joining them. The men I dated, and almost-dated, devoured my attention and then inevitably left me in one painful lurch or another. Sometimes I was the asshole. But either way, a depressing distance felt fixed between me and these men, same as the one between me and my parents. When I met Brandon, I was aching to find a partner who could help me build a home base of my own. The search for romantic love is an underestimated motive in the classic cult story.
I thought of myself generally as skeptical, discerning. But with all this need, I quickly softened to the possibilities of membership in a mysterious spiritual practice, a devout boyfriend, and maybe—maybe—even a guru to help me skip forward to a better part of my life. And while this seemed unorthodox on the surface, my aim was anything but: to obtain more happiness and love.
I returned to the Open Heart meeting the next week and the one after that. At both, Brandon and I had long, consuming conversations. On my way out one night, Maria handed me a CD of Irman leading the meditation and reciting a prayer, which I began listening to before bed.
“True Source,” Irman begins, “please bless our heart so that all arrogance be cleansed and removed to be replaced with your love and light….” I ignored my initial impression, a protest against the prayer’s focus on sin. Meditating with a guide made it almost simple to silence my own thoughts, as millions of meditation app users might attest.
With repetition, my bedtime sessions grew increasingly serene, as if I were lit with a milky, paper-lantern light. I began meditating in the morning, too. A couple months in, the glow became stronger, and seemed to radiate with a staticky movement from the center of my chest out through my hands. The group called this the feeling and cultivated it as a form of reiki, the ancient practice of circulating chi (or “life force”) through the body. “Laying of hands” is how it’s known in Christian contexts. This “energy work” tested my limits because it established the group squarely outside the mainstream; but the more I practiced, the more blissful I felt.
Before, I’d spent as much time as possible outside my home with friends. Now, when I wasn’t at work or Open Heart meetups, I wanted to be taking baths and meditating alone in my apartment off Fairfax Avenue. I stopped focusing on the offensively bright LED billboard outside the arched window of the living room and became attuned to the gold afternoon light that scored the tops of palm fronds. The slow, sweeping Santa Anas no longer called attention to the empty spaces inside me; instead, they filled me with well-being.
With the passing months, my practice matured into two hours of meditation a day or more. I played Irman’s recordings in the car through my hour-long commutes and in my earphones in my office cubicle. I recruited my friend Kat, a freshly licensed psychotherapist, and we participated in a slew of multiday seminars that cost up to $250 each. No more expensive than a yoga intensive, said the advanced students we called Seniors.
I was eager to complete the prerequisites to join a retreat with Irman, but was bothered by the money and time that advanced students spent to attend quarterly retreats—in Bali, Germany, North Carolina. What disturbed me more was how far my new friends would travel without seeing anything except the inside of the retreat center. It also seemed dodgy that the Open Heart group had alternate names, such as Reiki Tummo (a loose reference to Tibetan Buddhist meditation) and Padmacahaya (Indonesian for “lotus light”).
In one orbit of my mind, I knew that many would consider the above and see a cult. I reminded myself how much more insane it was to live as everyone else did, pinned to their smartphones, constantly searching their devices for more fulfilling minutes than what their surrounding lives provided. To further reassure myself, I asked Maria and other Seniors whether the group was religious. Belief in a newly invented god or afterlife would be the kind of red flag I was sure would end my affiliation. But the Seniors always confirmed that OH was not a religion, just a practice to supplement whatever beliefs you may or may not already have.
In August, eight months after my first meeting, Ian announced that Irman’s next big, globe-hopping retreat would be held near L.A. Ian told our local group that this was an honor, and we were elated. During one weekend practice, over a bowl of strawberries, his girlfriend, Ana, began preparing Kat and me with stories of her first retreat—many retreats ago. She explained how important it was to keep your ego from getting in the way of surrendering to whatever you came to learn. She confessed she’d almost left the event early, but said she was grateful she hadn’t wasted her life like that. Ana sounded extreme, but I believed the good of the group continued to outweigh the weird, even as she warned us about how strong the cleansing could get.
Kat and I joked about how annoying this term was. Of all the OH buzz words—ego, surrender, grateful—cleansing came up more than any other. If you mentioned that a meditation surfaced some sadness, or questioned the need to meditate two full hours every day, a Senior would inevitably remind you not to worry about the negative feeling, that it was only a byproduct of purification stimulated by the meditation. You’re just cleansing, they’d always say. Be grateful! In an advanced workshop, we’d recently learned that to encourage continual cleansing we were supposed to meditate all the time—that is, open-eyed, every minute—as we went about our days.
This became my objective because it seemed to me that Brandon and I had been teetering on the edge of a kiss for so long that anticipation had twisted into an instrument of torture. In an attempt to transcend this old romantic pattern, I hoped to approach some version of enlightenment, which I vaguely understood as a loving state so complete one might be freed from the pain of loneliness. Each of the hundreds of times I lost track of the feeling in a given day, I scolded myself and silently promised to do better. Other times, when I wasn’t meditating, the feeling would start up on its own, which was distracting at work and scary. The Seniors said it was probably just Irman meditating over on his side of the globe, advancing the practice. Who knew anymore?
I arrived at the retreat with a pair of flip-flops on my feet and a nervous but stifled expectation that I was approaching a great reveal, one that would cement my commitment to the group or finally confirm that I had been in a cult all along. Having used four precious vacation days from Yahoo! to be there, I was irritated to find myself at a Crowne Plaza hotel in Fullerton, California, a battered industrial town fifteen minutes from Disneyland. The corporate setting was even more concerning than a pastoral compound, but I was devoted to denial. I told myself the location was pragmatic, close to several airports.
Inside the hotel ballroom, about a hundred members from around the world sat in rows of pink-padded chairs. An ivy-patterned carpet ran beneath our bare feet. Midway through that first day, Ian called Kat and me up to meet Irman. We bent our heads humbly and clasped our hands like old women. How was one supposed to greet her guru?
The Seniors’ adoring descriptions clashed with the man standing before us. Irman was visually unremarkable, short with thick black hair that he wore in an unstylish side-part. He had an overall affect that was bafflingly flat. However, I was sure that I detected a stunning, cool reiki beaming off his body, an impressive searchlight inordinately brighter than the tiny flicker of my own feeling. I let this overwhelm my other impressions.
You do well, Irman told Kat and me before knitting his brow. But try like this. Surrender more. We nodded vigorously as if we understood. Of course we’d do better, try harder, give more.
Over the first two days of the retreat, I ate and slept well but also meditated, in one form or another, for at least twenty hours. In person, Irman took the ecstatic emphasis of the practice further. Religious metaphors don’t begin to touch it—definitely not “rivers of pure honey,” “a fountain of wine,” or “light from heaven.” I’ll just say it was an encounter of extreme beauty. According to Max Weber, ecstasy is a common offering of religious founders, people such as Jesus, Theosophy’s Helena Blavatsky, or Transcendental Meditation’s Maharishi Mahesh. After their death, this practice becomes lost or watered down by bureaucracy and intellectualization. It’s easy to imagine how the vacuum creates an opportunity that new prophets and revelations fill.
With the passing days, I became stuffed with so much of the feeling—what was it? Euphoria, the chi of acupuncture, love?—that it began to resemble an erotic state. I was enthralled with the effervescent sensation rushing through my chest and socked in by a fizzy haze framing my field of vision. At the same time, my body was almost an object on its own, far below in the ballroom.
It wasn’t just me. Kat told me she felt so high she was scared she might never come down. So it was Kat who ventured to ask Irman a question in the middle of his lecture on the fourth day. The audience participation, so far, had come at Irman’s exclusive invitation. Now, the room grew uncomfortably quiet at Kat’s raised hand. Irman looked at her intently, and she went ahead: Can you explain why we need to be this high?
Irman swiveled his body toward the other side of the audience. With a tone of mock concern, he cried, She’s afraid of being too close to True Source! I remember looking around with alarm as the sighing, praying, friendly voices of the past week morphed into jeers.
Then Irman doubled down, accusing Kat of the worst possible Open Heart crime: She does not love True Source enough.
Kat’s eyes met mine and went wide at this public shaming. Irman’s hostility to the question struck me then as authoritarian, cruel, and enormously culty. And yet, when Kat asked if I wanted to leave, I told her I didn’t want to go “reactively.” I needed more information before abandoning a group that had become so impor-tant to me.
After lunch, more information is what I got. Irman pointed to a projection of a diagram on the wall, a circle with numerous horizontal lines through it. In contradiction to what we’d been repeatedly told—that Open Heart was not a religious organization—Irman proceeded to unveil to the new members his cosmological prophecy, a religion he began discovering while meditating in 1998.
The writer Marilynne Robinson argues that religious myths were never “a naive attempt at science” but that they achieved something science could not, which is to “regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos.” But Irman’s myth had all the poetry of a video game. He told his rapt audience that a reunion with True Source required reincarnations through 365 learning dimensions. This Father was so unavailable that even in heaven you had to transcend seven strata to get to him. And if you didn’t like that, well, then you were damned to an eternity of dimness.
After you die, Irman explained, you wait. In the waiting time, it is the discretion of True Source whether you are sent for reincarnation, released, or if the patrol of souls carries you to hell.
Kat turned to me. The pink shells of her fingernails scratched gently at her throat. This is a very big bummer, she whispered.
Quitting OH was an existential decision Kat didn’t want to make alone. She followed me as I shuffled zombie-like to our hotel room that night, exhausted by the energy required to block one neon-bright thought: Leave! At the time, I saw myself trapped between two impossible choices—a secret cult, where I chased Irman’s approval and an unreachable god by meditating every minute of my life, or the awful consequences of exiting: losing friends, an existence of heightened purpose, the wad of time and money I’d invested, and access to that life-altering feeling. To delay the decision, I tucked my body into one of the two tightly made beds, turned on Irman’s recording, and meditated myself to sleep.
The next day I found myself somewhere I was certain I’d never be: in the audience of a past-life regression. My friend Ana—the woman who’d shared strawberries with me in her sunny kitchen—was the student demonstrator. I watched in disbelief as Irman guided her into a deep meditation, instructing her to disintegrate further and further into the sensation around her heart before asking who she was. At that point, Ana jumped into a fighting stance and declared herself a samurai.
Who do you work for? Irman asked.
Are you a good employee?
Do you pray?
Irman went on testing Ana’s loyalty to her employer and her god for a while more. Then, on his word, Ana dropped to the floor as if cut from a rope. Her backside pounded the stage; her shoulder followed. She curled like a dried leaf.
Your heart in this lifetime was open only a little to True Source, Irman said. What is it like to know that as you die?
Ana shrieked and began writhing on the floor. Her hideous scream went on and on until Irman snapped his fingers and commanded that she Return to present.
Yet still, Kat and I were in attendance at breakfast the next morning, our sixth day. We were the last two in the dining hall, scandalously late for the morning session, when Kat asked if I still felt “reactive.” In that rare moment of silence, I noticed that my body was not lit up but deadened, protesting with every pound. I became aware of how much I detested the idea of entering another event with Irman. Although attendees were free to leave at any time, you would not have known it to watch us sprint to our hotel room, stuff all our clothes into our bags, and yank phone chargers from the walls. We hustled across the lobby, but as Kat’s hand landed on the glass door to the parking lot, we heard our names. Turning around, we saw an Australian member of the group, a tall, loud woman, jogging after us. She stopped, caught her breath, and said the very thing we were most afraid to hear: You are making the biggest mistake of your lives.
On the way home, the culturally ingrained terror of cults that I’d staved off for months flooded my system, dragging through hellacious images—a rattlesnake in a mailbox, a shot dog, piles of dead bodies. I entertained baseless fears that someone from the group might try to harass or harm us. That neither Kat nor I could shake the floaty, foggy hangover of the meditation high worsened our agitation. I wondered if this was Irman’s intense energy inside me, punishing me with a dim future because I’d left—because my ego was too strong. The Open Heart teachings and admonitions had often sounded absurd, but even so, over nine months they’d seeped into the creases of my brain in unpredictably powerful ways. My fantasy that a meditation guru had total access to me raised my anxiety to a degree I could no longer contain, and now I shrieked in Kat’s car. It was the beginning of what mental health professionals would call a mild psychotic break.
It did not feel mild. The following weeks and months were the most disorienting and upsetting of my life. I lost ten pounds in as many days and took two weeks leave from work. Whenever I managed to transition from high anxiety to sleep, I immediately jerked awake, terrified that Irman would overtake more of me while I rested. To distance from the suffering, I dropped into a psychological state of dissociation known as depersonalization, a known risk of prolonged meditation. As my attention wandered from the alien organisms of my hands to the hard teeth in my mouth or the gaunt face in the bathroom mirror, I felt imprisoned in my own form. I came to understand, really understand, why people killed themselves.
In the literature of cults, conversion occurs through brainwashing. The topic was a chronic American concern throughout the Cold War, and it was Margaret Thaler Singer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who popularized extending the concept to religions. After providing expert testimony on behalf of Patricia Hearst at court proceedings for her 1976 bank-robbery trial, Singer began assisting parents struggling to extricate their adult children from emerging religious groups. Her book, Cults in Our Midst, has been in continuous print since 1995.
In Cults, Singer cites various standards to determine the presence of brainwashing in an organization (and thus identify a cult). Best known among these criteria are the eight themes of totalism, which the psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton first observed in his 1961 study of the effects of Chinese “re-education” programs and prisons on civilians in the wake of the Communist Revolution. Totalitarianism is a political concept; Lifton coined “totalism” as a psychological one, an “extremist meeting ground between people and ideas.”
When I viewed my months in Open Heart through the lens of Lifton’s themes and Singer’s book, a mixed experience began to look entirely malign. Take Milieu Control, the practice by which totalist leaders limit communication into and within their domain. Singer wrote that spiritual retreats constitute a type of short-term Milieu Control because indoctrination proceeds mostly uninterrupted by outside influence from friends, family, or daily realities. Its ultimate purpose, according to Lifton, is to manage the “inner communication”—the silent thoughts—of each follower. This made me consider the Open Heart meditation recordings as a kind of controlled milieu, too—a brilliant one, because it had followed me wherever I went.
That buzzword cleansing looked sinister in the context of another theme: Loading the Language. Lifton described this as the use of jargon to swallow ideas that challenge the group’s values. When Kat complained about the duration of meditations at the retreat, a smiling Senior had replied, You’re just cleansing. Be grateful! Loaded language conceals emotion and opinion, the antecedents of action. I assumed I’d been fully conscious of my fears that past year that Open Heart might be a far-out religion, but Kat said I never once mentioned them to her. Looking back, I saw that they had been cornered into some dissociated, liminal space.
A third theme that was easy to identify in Open Heart was the Demand for Purity. Lifton has described it as a “radical separation of good and evil,” an insistence on impossible perfection. To evade the shame of falling into the evil category, followers are highly motivated to participate in an “ethos of continuous reform.” Shame breeds submission, so it’s pervasive in a totalist climate, as Kat had vividly learned. In Open Heart, I also saw a sharp us/them dichotomy. Everyone else was lost in an egotistical dimness. We were enlightened and pure—or at least moving that way.
The most brutal of Lifton’s themes was the one he called the Dispensing of Existence. History well knows the leaders who’ve manifested this theme most literally—Hitler, Stalin, Mao. Here, totalist ideology “draws a sharp line” between loyal members of the group who have a “right to existence” and everyone else, who does not. I thought of Irman’s symbolic sacrifice of Ana. He’d directed her to act out the death of a worthless person because of a fantasy that she was under-committed to his ideology, that she worshipped True Source too little in a past life. It was no murder but, to me, it felt like violence of some kind. Lifton argued, “The totalist environment—even when it does not resort to physical abuse—thus stimulates in everyone a fear of extinction or annihilation.”
Most cult-survivor narratives are intensely influenced by the Singer-Lifton model. As a former convert reenters mainstream life, they’re shocked to look back on their experience through their old eyes: Alternative religions and self-help organizations are for stupid people. Man-boys in man buns. Waifs with daisies in their hair. Dupes. They wonder, What does participating in a demanding, manipulative, or abusive group say about me? By using the word cult to refuse responsibility, the individual can bypass a crucial reckoning.
According to the research of Catherine Wessinger, a scholar of religion, the first pejorative use of the word cult appeared in the 1898 book Anti-Christian Cults, written to bolster the fundamentalist movement as it took shape in reaction to American modernization. Soon, the term was used to vilify Black religious groups, including Black Jews and Black Muslims and the Nation of Islam. Beginning in the 1960s, cult became a designation for Asian religious groups, such as Reverend Moon’s Unification Church and the Hare Krishna movement, that appeared in the US as discriminatory immigration practices loosened. These groups gained traction among masses of young adults reassessing traditional values in response to the Civil Rights Movement, the long war in Vietnam, and the draft. This left behind a lot of scared parents, white parents especially. Today, about a thousand fringe religions operate in America, though we only hear about a problematic few.
When cult documentaries include experts, they’re almost always so-called “cult experts” rather than credentialed scholars in conventional fields of religion and sociology, probably because current academic consensus flies in the face of the cult-survivor narrative that directors expect to tell and the public loves to hear. Singer’s fifty-year-old theories remain the building blocks of our popular beliefs, but study of the topic has moved on. Today, the prevailing academic understanding is that age and size are the only characteristics that set cults apart from major religions. The features we associate with cults—charismatic leaders, kooky rituals, promises of expedient solutions for existential hardships, and crime—are easy to find, for instance, in Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions and history. This is why academics have, for decades, preferred the neutral term new religious movements to cults, a standard even leading publications continue to flout.
“Any new religious group is going to be working pretty hard to establish itself,” Scott Lowe told me. Lowe is a religion and philosophy professor emeritus on the executive committee of Nova Religio, the journal of record on the topic. I’d reached out because I was clutching the last fragments of my belief in brainwashing cults and had yet to find an explanation for the commitment—of time and money—that these groups so often demand of their members. Upstanding temples and churches didn’t do that, by and large. Lowe thought of these as normal sacrifices required of a religion’s first generation. “But that’s true of any new group,” he said. “Whether it’s people at a Silicon Valley startup living on Skittles and IPA or a new religious movement.”
What about claims that the Open Heart group wasn’t a religion? I never would have gone to my first meeting if I’d known about the patrol of souls. Lowe pointed to evangelical-youth parties at coffee shops and US Army outreach. “Look at the military ads: Be all you can be! Army of one!” he said. “One what? It’s not about your individualism and it’s not about getting your college degree. It’s about training your butt and sending you to war.”
In assessing the extent to which any organization seeks to manipulate its members, Lowe and other scholars say that Lifton’s eight psychological themes remain a useful framework, but with a blazing caveat: They almost never lead to brainwashing. Even Lifton stipulates that brainwashing can only occur when a subject is held by force, and effects rarely last once a captive is released. Lack of evidence is why the American Psychological Association, in 1987, rejected a paper on religious brainwashing by one of their own task forces, led by none other than Singer herself. Consequently, courts stopped allowing expert testimony on the topic, but a reemergence under its euphemism, “coercive control,” brought the argument to the federal court case against NXIVM leader Keith Raniere. Because such brainwashing is nonphysical, the theory encourages judges to punish forms of speech, threatening the expression of free thought in cases built to protect it. While on the phone with Lowe, I realized that every last one of the characteristics we’ve used to define cults for the last sixty years—so exceptional and repugnant in the petri dish of a cult documentary or memoir—are everywhere.
I began to trace the outlines of Lifton’s eight themes in my life before Open Heart. A passage I kept thinking about argued that totalism is “in some measure part of every childhood experience” and one’s susceptibility to it relates to “one’s personal history: early lack of trust, extreme environmental chaos, total domination by a parent…intolerable burdens of guilt, and severe crises of identity.” Because a great deal of warmth and privilege also characterized my upbringing, my assumption had been that my family issues were insufficiently severe to have contributed to my jumping into an eccentric religious group and having a nervous breakdown.
However, totalist patterns can be astonishingly commonplace. It was true that my father’s opinions compulsively split the world into superior and inferior categories. As I went through my day—parking my car, ordering lunch, pitching stories at the news publication where I’d landed an editing job—I heard my father’s scoffing pfft or deep-voiced praise in my head. Everything felt like a test of purity. His father had taken it much further, writing disobedient family members out of his will. Surely, my mother had also been called unforgivable by her parents before. And though her temperament changed through the years, the imprint had been set. In Open Heart, Seniors had repressed difficult sentiments by loading them all into the word cleansing. My parents had used dramatic or brat the same way, to stifle or ignore feeling, mine and their own, in attempts at control.
Elements of my narrative that had never quite made sense became clear to me. Of course my early introduction to totalist themes made me more vulnerable to them in Open Heart. The first “cult” anyone encounters is that insular, inescapable milieu of the childhood home. This helped explain why the retreat prompted my breakdown.
And yet I was almost thirty years old when my saga began. Although the totalist impulse lives in all of us, evidence suggests that it was pronounced in me—due to my own nature and what I’d preserved from my upbringing. Yes, the extensive meditation magnified my risk, and I wish I’d been warned about possible side effects. But I could have left sooner or taken a moderate approach. In the end, the person responsible for what I went through was me.
The word cult itself is a mighty bit of loaded language. It serves, as Lifton wrote, to terminate thought that challenges a culture or its self-perception. By pointing fingers at cults, apostates and their families miss opportunities to glimpse their own manipulative methods of gaining loyalty, compliance, and affection.
When audiences consume stories of exotic cults, could we be, on some level, wondering at the confines of our own culture—our intricate social protocols, the waves of curious clothing trends, our round-the-clock work schedules, the pernicious manipulations of online media, our worship of so many idols?
I suspect that as we affirm our lifestyle by critiquing what we believe are cults—which is to say, new religions—we seek confirmation that religions are unnecessary and absurd. Today, an unprecedented 29 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with a faith group, a thirteen-point rise since 2007. Yet at the height of my cult outrage, I could not reject the central numinous, ecstatic, and transformative meditations I’d had. The breakdown took months to fade, but long-term I’d been infused with something akin to what astronauts know as the overview effect, a profoundly expanded sense of global interconnection, possibility, and love that helped me rebuild a life that better mirrored the contours of my unique consciousness and will. In his textbook, Professor Lorne Dawson encourages the next generation of religion scholars to expand their imaginations. “We must duly appreciate that people may well convert for precisely the reasons the religions themselves say they do,” he says, “because they have achieved some form of enlightenment or insight into their salvation.”
Nonetheless, when a movement or religion—new or old—answers urgent, suppressed emotional needs, it can inspire individuals and societies to transform with head-spinning speed and, in the hands of the wrong leaders, catalyze immense destruction. The word cult is also used to keep us safe. Maybe we should employ it to describe the most controlling or criminal new religions, but our application has been reckless. Seventy years ago, Communists were the foreign, brainwashing monsters Americans feared. The Vietnam War sought to weaken those monsters but instead revealed America in a totalitarian light—a global powerhouse trying to impose its will on the world and its own citizens. The catastrophe was an opportunity for our nation to recommit to freedom of thought and belief, to democracy. Instead, we transferred our terror of mind control over to new and non-Western religions. Even as elements of our government have come further to embody totalist themes, in surveillance of civilians, treatment of the press, racist rhetoric, and contempt for free elections, our escalating obsession with “cults” allows us to project our fear of psychological subjugation into the margins of society. In so doing, we pretend that treacherous and inescapable forces are not already upon us. We forget that the most dangerous captors are us.
† In the interest of protecting their identities, all followers of Open Heart Meditation are referred to pseudonymously.