As a clinician versed in treating complex trauma, over the years I’ve encountered folks reeling from the aftermath of cult abuse. As I’d listen to their stories of victimization I would find myself marveling at the parallels between a narcissist led cult and what an individual seeking treatment endured through a singular relationship with a narcissist. It seems as if there is a psychological blueprint that malignant narcissists possess. A sort of pathological instruction manual that teaches the narc how to prey on both individuals and the masses.
So when the horrors of Nxivm, a multi-level marketing company recently made headlines for cult abuse I found myself hoping that the surreal nature of this sort of perfidious collective trauma might finally be unpacked for the world to view and recognize as narcissistic abuse syndrome.
Apparently, Nxivm, touting the tag line “working to make a better world” through their prestigious self-improvement and personal development programs, was exposed as a destructive cult. Nxivm founder Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, child porn possession, and sex trafficking.
In order to explain the psychological machinations of a narcissistically disordered cult leader like Raniere, it is critical to first understand what exactly a cult is and what distinguishes it from other types of group engagement.
When a group of people gather to revere an ideological belief system espoused by a deified charismatic leader there is a risk that this collective form of worship can morph into an unwavering obedience and blind conformity to the dictates of the path and the leader.
This scenario describes a cult.
Any deviation or opposition from the group mind of a destructive cult is met with an aggressive onslaught of punishment, marginalization or exile by the leader and followers. Characterized by extreme forms of psychological manipulation known as brainwashing, cult leaders exploit, extort, punish and marginalize. This sort of mind control is prevalent in dominant ideologies, organized religion and seemingly benign professional development organizations. Even families can be destructively cult-like and in fact many folks from debilitating familial abuse gravitate toward the seductive bliss that cults promise.
The common thread in all cults is the use of techniques and methods indicative of breaking down a potential disciple’s self-identity in order to bring about thought reform. Love bombing, in which a target is made to feel special and loved is interspersed with terror and the incessant indoctrination of absolutist beliefs.
When “love” is interspersed with fear a trauma bond known as Stockholm Syndrome sets in. Object relations theorist Ronald Fairbairn explains this phenomenon through attachment processes in severely abused children. The use of dissociation to preserve the good deified parental object is crucial to the abused child’s survival. The unbearable betrayal of abuse and rejection must be walled off and denied. Consequently the child blames herself so as to preserve the parent as good and humane. She tells herself it is her badness that is responsible for her caregiver’s cruelty. This offers hope that she desperately clings to. This drive to maximize attachment to those who reject and revile, so as to survive is evidenced in the pathological attachment of cult followers and other victims of narcissistic abuse.
Through collectively inducing feelings of shame and guilt cult members are controlled and persuaded. The unquestionable veneration of teachings and doctrines is demanded. To achieve this end devotees are isolated in a closed system, prohibitive of outside influence so that thought processes can be controlled. The use of sensory deprivation and the managing of sleep patterns, eating, and use of the bathroom are determined and enforced by the cult leader. Subservience to the leader and cult demands that followers cut ties with outside family and friends, and radically dismantle the goals and activities they engaged in before joining the group.
In Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Lalich & Tobias impart that cult leaders dictate, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel. Members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry. Leaders may prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth. Under the duress of the conversion experience, people quickly change and vanish from their families.
For conversion to happen the designated mentor, teacher, guru or spiritual leader of a cult must seem larger than life and compelling. Like Keith Raniere, psychopathic narcissists who possess an insatiable grandiosity may have a messiah complex, aka a Christ complex or savior complex. At the helm of a cult, they are perceived as a special being, an avatar, a redeemer on a special mission to save humanity. They espouse the absolutist proclamation that they alone have the formula to save others from the evil forces in the world.
Their specialness affords them unique privileges. After all, the leader and the group by proxy, are elitist. Endowed with a distinguished exalted status and being above this mundane plane of earthly existence means the cult leader does not have to be accountable to mainstream authorities like the law, licensing bodies, or even standard codes of conduct. Indeed, the malignancy of the narcissistic cult leader is reflected in the illicit strategies and tactics employed to control followers.
Those recruited into cults are deemed useful supply either monetarily or through status and compliance. Often those who are designated as desirable marks are seekers going through life transitions, longing to transcend emptiness and life’s asperities. They are seduced by the lure of rising above life’s imperfections. They are vulnerable. Some are already pre-disposed to be supply due to early grooming.
Professor of psychology Margaret T. Singer studied hundreds of cult members and investigated mind-control techniques used on American army prisoners during the Korean War. Dr. Singer contends that the extreme behavioral changes seen in cult followers are due to techniques acquired from the human-potential movement, from encounter, sensitivity training and humanistic-psychology movements. Combined with cult ideology and convincing sales methods, prospective devotees are manipulated and brainwashed.
Although we view many cult devotees as especially impressionable, As Dr. Singer suggests, given the right ingredients we are all susceptible to mind control. For example, the enticing gimmicks comprising the cult of personality pull us into the mass glorification of leaders and celebrities through socially engineered mass media campaigns. We are overloaded with larger than life imagery and psychologically manipulated to assign special powers to select people. Captivated, we become converts imbuing people with great beneficence and wisdom.
Similar to cult devotion, celebrity worship reveals how the collective longing to escape the fears and challenges of the human condition fuels the aggrandizing of high-ranking people. Just like cult leaders we mythologize eminent personalities who are no more capable than the average person of assuming a political role or declaring scientific expertise. Nevertheless, we imbue them with special wisdom, hanging onto their every word and action as if they possess the answer to the meaning of life itself.
To reiterate, the pathological cult leader strategically uses specific techniques to target those ripe for recruitment. The indoctrination process involves immersion in educational or psycho-spiritual retreats, coupled with love-bombing, sensory deprivation tactics and brainwashing. Marginalization from alternate thought systems or folks who might offer contrary beliefs or judgments occurs. Isolating the prospective disciple is critical to ensuring loyalty. Additionally, folks who were born into adverse familial circumstances tend to be easy marks as they are yearning for a tribal connection to fill an omnipresent emptiness born of ruptured traumatic primal bonds. Such individuals are not only malleable targets for cult leaders, but are also compliant victims of narcissists.
No doubt there are vast differences between the secretive Nazi cult Colonia Dignidad where children were sexually enslaved and tortured and under the rule of Pinochet government subversives were tortured and killed, compared to seemingly benign cults like Landmark Forum** or The Kabbalah Learning Center. While cults can range from being severely destructive to relatively innocuous I believe that any sort of intense devotion in the context of a community has the potential to become corrupted.
Group identity affords a sense of power and belonging, but due to innate traits in the human condition such as egocentricity, needs for admiration, power and status, competitiveness and security, the diminishing of individuality and divisiveness are inevitable. Most importantly, those in positions of power are always at risk for deviating from the best intentions, and those who are drawn to power may be predisposed to enact narcissistic agendas.
As Lord Acton said, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In our search for belonging and communal fulfillment it is always imperative to remain intelligently guarded and protective of our sacred uniqueness and autonomy. It is the healthy, albeit rare community that embraces selfhood and welcomes diversity. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule.
** As of Dec. 18th 2020 I was contacted by the President of Landmark Forum Mick Leavitt, requesting me to retract referencing their organization as a benign cult. Given that I based my assessment on my personal experience of Landmark and those of folks I’ve encountered who had a similar impression, I am not willing to withdraw this statement. However, I am willing to share the sundry clinical opinions Mr. Leavitt cited, which asserts that Landmark Forum does not present as a cult.
Peter L. Sheras, Ph.D., ABPP, a Member of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association, a licensed Clinical Psychologist in practice in Charlottesville, Virginia, Chair of the Department of Human Services at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, a member of the National Academies of Practice, and awarded an American Psychological Association Presidential Citation in 2015 and the APA State Leadership Award in 2014 stated: “As a Member of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association, I’ve observed numerous Landmark programs and found them to be exceptional courses that provide great benefit to participants. I appreciated the programs myself and recommended them to some of my clients who have reported positive results. While Landmark is occasionally mischaracterized in the media by those who have not participated, based on my professional background and experience Landmark programs are not psychological in nature, and are clearly not a cult, cult-like, brainwashing, or harmful.” Dr. Norbert Nedopil, renowned forensic psychiatrist, Head of the Department of Forensic Psychiatry at the University of Munich and a recognized expert on sects, stated: “There were no aspects discovered in any of [my] three studies and observations that would allow anyone to consider Landmark as a sect or a sect-like organization.” The late Dr. Raymond Fowler, Ph.D., past Chief Executive Officer of the American Psychological Association, studied a number of Landmark Forums and stated his personal opinion, based on his study and his observation of The Landmark Forum and his more than 50 years as a psychologist, as follows: “The Landmark Forum is not a cult or anything like a cult, and I do not see how any reasonable person who has carefully examined it could say that it is.” The late Dr. Margaret Singer, one of the world’s leading experts on cults and author of the book, Cults in our Midst, stated in writing that: “I do not believe that either Landmark or The Landmark Forum is a cult or sect or meets the criteria of a cult or sect.” Numerous other top health professionals have independently observed Landmark’s programs in countries including the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia, Germany, and other countries worldwide.