When Worlds Collide : For Some, Cults Hold All the Answers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Disenchanted with college, unsure about a career and turned off by his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Henry Kriegel hitchhiked around the country 16 years ago on a personal and spiritual quest that ended at a lecture sponsored by Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant.

As he listened, something clicked that hadn't with the other philosophies he'd explored--and after several months of study and reflection, Kriegel joined the controversial sect, which came to be widely known for its massive Montana bomb shelter.

For Kriegel, who's still a member, the question of why people join fringe sects is easily answered: It's a voluntary decision based on the group's beliefs and practices.

But experts say a host of other factors is at work: age, emotional state, social unrest and--maybe--deception and mind control.

"I keep getting asked, 'Who are all these crazy people who join these groups?' " says Rachel Andres, director of the Commission on Cults and Missionaries for the Jewish Federation Council. "And my answer is, 'I don't think they're crazy at all. I think they're all of us at one point or another in our lives.' "

In general, that "one point or another" occurs in the late teens or early 20s, says Gordon Melton, director of the Santa Barbara-based Institute for the Study of American Religion: "That's the time when people are (forming their adult identities and are) most open to changing their religious outlook."

Another expert notes, "You don't see too many elderly folks in cults." (The Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Tex., a Seventh-day Adventist splinter group, may be an exception. Some news reports have mentioned older members, but experts say they probably grew up in the organization, which was only recently taken over by David Koresh.)

Andres believes the age issue is part of a broader category of "transition times in life." The breakup of a relationship, the death of a loved one and other major changes leave some vulnerable to the lure of a cult, she says.

Corey Slavin, for example, now an associate of Andres, was drawn toward the Church Universal and Triumphant in 1988, when she had just moved, started a new job and was grieving over the death of her grandmother. The emotional upheaval shook her faith and self-esteem, she says: "I was a lost soul."

Others agree that the "lost soul" syndrome plays a key role in attracting people to fringe sects. In an "anything-goes" society, some people want the structure and authority of a cult, says psychiatrist Mark Goulston: "It's a way to simplify your life . . . a chance to just give up all your worries and frustrations. It's very seductive."

And unlike most strict mainstream and fundamentalist churches, cults give members life that "is structured 24 hours a day," says University of Nevada sociologist James T. Richardson.

Although some observers insist that cults have always existed in the United States, Richardson and others say the phenomenon mushroomed amid the tumult of the 1960s and '70s. The assassinations, anti-war demonstrations and challenges to traditional authority created a moral vacuum that new sects capitalized on, Richardson says.

"The times were so confusing," says Steve Greeter, a 1970 recruit to a sect called the Children of God. "When I met (my group), I felt like I'd tried everything--football, drugs. I'd been in the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam; I'd been a hippie." Greeter still belongs to the organization.

Melton estimates there are 600 to 700 "alternative" groups in the United States, with "maybe 1 million or 2 million followers on any given day. The membership is very unstable."

The range of philosophies is mind-boggling.

James R. Lewis, an expert in new religions, recalls a new-age conference at which a man claimed to channel for dolphins. He wasn't saying stuff like, "Destroy all tuna boats," Lewis notes. He was just up there making dolphin noises. And hundreds of people were listening.

Melton says any belief system seems unusual to the uninitiated. Just try explaining Christianity to an outsider, he says: "An ex-carpenter who was executed 1,900 years ago holds the key to the universe. . . ."

But many observers contend that a sect's philosophies have little or nothing to do with why people join. Some are attracted by the charisma of a leader or the warmth and enthusiasm of its members.

It's a way to feel acceptance and a sense of belonging, says psychiatrist Goulston: "When the agony of being alone and confused and misunderstood becomes too great, giving up your mind and identity to belong is not too high a price to pay."

Others find a more ominous explanation for why people accept seemingly bizarre belief systems: mind control.

"The common misperception is that people (who join cults) are looking for something spiritual," Andres says. "That's not true. Most join because they think the group is something other than what it ends up being."

In some cases, that's because the sect careens over the edge as the leader becomes corrupted by power. Many of Jim Jones' followers said the early days of the cult were marked by a feeling of brotherhood and the promise of a utopia, but it disintegrated into violence and--ultimately--mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana.

In other cases, a group deliberately conceals its identity or beliefs to avoid scaring off potential recruits, cult critics contend. A Children of God member, for example, says it was six months before he even heard the name of the group's controversial leader.

"Cults have gotten a lot more sophisticated," says Andres. "It doesn't work now if you wear robes and sell flowers at the airport."

Rather, groups offer innocuous-sounding classes or seminars and, from there, gradually lure recruits toward deeper involvement, she says.

Slavin's experience with the Church Universal and Triumphant is typical, according to Andres and other cult critics. As Slavin tells it, a co-worker, without mentioning any ties to the sect, subtly played on her emotions at a vulnerable time in her life, slowly pulling her away from family and friends and into the group's orbit. There, five hours of daily chanting, a limited diet and hours or manual labor induced a "trance-like state": "My thoughts were not my own."

Ex-cult members list other methods used to weaken a person's judgment: sleep deprivation; limiting access to books, movies and other outside ideas; and lack of privacy and time for reflection.

It's mind control, Andres says.

But that argument has been widely attacked by sociologists and other researchers. "Mainstream academia has rejected brainwashing," says Lewis. "When you actually go in and talk to the people (in these groups), nothing seems to be wrong with their information processing abilities."

Richardson calls mind control an "after-the-fact rationalization" used by ex-members to explain away behavior in the group about which they're now embarrassed or ashamed. Basically, "people join because they want to. . . . I don't think they're tricked into it."

Lewis asserts that the alleged mind-control techniques used by fringe sects aren't much different from methods used by the military, Catholic religious orders and college fraternities. But people only use the term, he says, for groups they don't like.

Others argue that if mind control really worked, everyone would be in a cult.

On the other hand, if mind control doesn't work, then deprogramming--its opposite--also shouldn't have any effect. Yet it often does.

For that reason, some experts occupy a middle ground on the mind-control issue.

Marc Galanter, author of "Cults: Faith, Healing & Coercion," says people can't simply be manipulated to believe anything: "They have to encounter something that resonates with them."

Still, that doesn't mean they aren't being controlled and shaped, he adds: It's just that part of it is their own doing.

Goulston contends that cults use a form of salesmanship that produces a mild hypnotic trance, but he notes that regular salesmen are often adept at the same technique.

And, in any case, the effects are often short-lived. Studies show that "a large percentage, maybe even a majority, of those involved in (full-time or) high-demand groups leave within a year or two," Melton says.

Says Lewis: "If that's brainwashing, it's not very effective."

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