There’s an art to knowing when “tell me about yourself” means “tell me about yourself.” Sometimes it means, “Since we’re both standing here raiding the crackers and brie at a boring party where no one knows anyone, perhaps we could try filling the awkward silence with awkward chitchat.” So, I try to keep things light. “I’m an interior designer,” I reply. “I have two daughters, two cats, one dog. And I paint. Acrylics.” Only if pressed for more do I add, “When I was thirty-two, my now ex-husband and I joined a Mormon-based polygamist cult. I believe you dropped your cracker.”1
It’s not hard to understand why people raised in religious cults remain in them. Practices and beliefs that are weird to you are normal, even virtuous, to them. Many have no choice but to remain: The FLDS,2 Scientologists, and others have been known to pursue and bring back defectors by any means, legal or not.3 Others remain for fear of damnation, curses, or other supernatural threats.4 But many if not most stick around willingly, firm in the belief that theirs is the right path.
What may be a tad harder to understand is someone who grows up outside a polygamist cult and, upon hearing that God wants her husband to add a bunch more wives, says, “Sign me up.”5
Seventeen years have passed since we ended our seven-year stint as members of The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days, which the Lord in his infinite mercy allowed us to abbreviate as “the TLC.” That’s seventeen years I’ve had to regret the effect that living in the cult surely had on my then nine- and ten-year-old daughters; seventeen years to rue lost opportunities in personal growth, career, and friendships with non-delusional people; and seventeen years that the woman staring back at me from the mirror has continually chided, What the hell were you thinking?
I tell her I knew exactly what I was thinking. I was thinking how cool it was that, out of Earth’s billions of inhabitants, our little group of some two hundred souls living in tiny Manti, Utah,6 had The Truth; that in the hereafter, my husband could become a god and I one of his priestesses; that our odds of attaining that exalted state improved with every wife we brought to the party (so to speak); that Jesus was going to kick off the apocalypse by coming to Manti on March 25, 2000; that on that day, all non-TLC members would be burned as stubble; and that, having worked up an appetite with all that stubble-burning, Jesus and his angels would stay for dinner. For the occasion, I baked cookies. Hundreds of them. The last thing you want is to come up empty-handed when, dabbing their lips with their napkins, Jesus and all those angels ask, “So, what’s for dessert?”
When I had taken all the chiding I could stand, I suggested to the woman in the mirror that instead of asking what I was thinking, it might be more useful to ask how I came to think it. She conceded the point, and together we set out to uncover how I grew up to become cult-bait. I knew that environment, including my upbringing, couldn’t be solely responsible. Most people with a similar background don’t just up and join polygamist cults. Nor could I lay all the blame on any innate wimpiness I may have brought with me from the womb, for not every wimp ups and joins a polygamist cult either.7 I suspected the answer lay in a chaotic system of innateness and environment duking it out. But without access to my cerebral software code, I had no choice but to limit my inquiry to environment.
In my post-cult years, I had stumbled upon books and articles by scientific and skeptical authors, so I was able to embark on my research a little better informed than in my younger days.8 In particular I studied magazines such as Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, and Skeptic; and books such as Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things and Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s When Prophecy Fails. If you can imagine, I found those resources a good deal more illuminating than the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and even the TLC’s prophet.
There Are Cults, and There Are Cults
The deeper I dug, the more I realized that neither polygamists nor religion in general has a monopoly on cultish thinking and behaviors. For a taste of nonreligious cultish organizations or movements, you need only say “tell me more” to someone deep into the likes of Amway, Mary Kay Cosmetics, The Secret, the Paleo Diet, neuro-linguistic programming, conspiracy theories, Suzanne Somers, Deepak Chopra, or any political extreme. Moreover, not every religion is a cult. Many are eminently non-cultish in that they allow personal freedom of thought and behavior, Unitarian Universalism being a prime example. (What do you get when you cross a Mormon with a Unitarian Universalist? Someone who knocks on your door for no particular reason.)
One of the more insidious aspects of cults is that cult is not so easily defined. Nor does it help that cult has more than one legitimate use. You can call any small group a “cult,” refer to an offbeat movie as a “cult film,” or say that Katy Perry has a “cult following.” These are all valid uses, and, with the possible exception of what Katy Perry fandom reveals about one’s musical taste, such “cults” are arguably harmless.9
The kind of cult I’m talking about is in no way harmless. I’m talking about the kind that dictates your identity, what you will think, and how you will act, all to an absurd level of intrusion. Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton characterized cults as having “. . . a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship . . . coercive persuasion or thought reform . . . [and] economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.”10 Neurologist Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society, points out that it is not beliefs but behaviors that identify cults and lists five: totalitarian control, secrecy, separation, mind control, and a self-contained belief system where leaders have “. . . perfect authority and exclusive knowledge . . .” and “. . . are never to be questioned.”11
The above is a recipe for getting people to do the ludicrous—such as the time my husband rented an airplane to sprinkle consecrated olive oil over our little town to protect it from the coming apocalypse—or the heinous, such as the time Jim Jones persuaded 909 people to commit murder-suicide.12
Some groups or movements are more cultish than others, so it’s helpful to think in terms of degrees of cultishness rather than cult or not-cult. As Novella put it, “. . . if we choose our list of cult characteristics, then we can assess any group or institution and check off which ones they possess. The more they have, the more of a cult they are.”13
My desire to unravel my upbringing gave way to a sense of mission. Maybe if I shared my story I could help one or two cult followers wake up and leave, coax a prospective victim back from the precipice, offer outsiders a little insight, and suggest ways we can avoid unwittingly instilling or reinforcing cultish thinking. Trouble is, people get testy at the slightest suggestion of reexamining their thinking and actions. If you don’t believe me, here’s an experiment you can try. Walk up to a stranger with kids and say, “I’d like to tell you a few things you might be doing wrong as a parent.” Note: The aforementioned experiment is not recommended. If you proceed, do not send me the hospital bill.14
Which is why I’m not going to presume to warn you about how to avoid unwittingly instilling cultish thinking and behaviors. Inst
ead, I’m going to share a few tips on how to instill cultish thinking and behaviors on purpose. If your life’s dream is to become or to raise prime cult-bait, the next section is for you.
Ten Tips for Creating Cult-Bait
Prepare to be unimpressed at first blush. Cultish thinking is in many ways no more than normal, everyday thinking on steroids. The distance between a parent’s at-times reasonable “do as I say” and a cult’s unreasonable “never question the leader” is vast, but between them lies a continuum, not a gulf. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll throw in with a bunch of loonies and round up additional wives for my husband to bed.” I baby-stepped from a socially acceptable absurdity (Jesus will return) to the next, only slightly more arcane one (his first stop will be Manti, Utah), and so forth, until in time I stood comfortably atop a mountain of absurdities (Why, yes, I am all for sharing my husband with that unjustly endowed woman half my age) and thought the view from up there was nothing short of splendid (Am I a model stalwart or what?).
So don’t be put off by the seeming simplicity of the following tips. Creating cult-bait is all about nudging yourself and others along a little at a time. Just how far you succeed in nudging will vary with your skill and persistence; the influence of peers, media, and relatives; other environmental factors; and individual nudgeability.15
- Accept that you’re not smart enough to make your own decisions. Cults can lift quite the burden if you’re looking for someone to tell you what to believe, how to act, what to wear, whom to befriend, how to vote, what to eat, and more.As a Mormon female born in the 1960s, I grew up understanding that my top priority was to snag, bag, and tag a man and then to obey, obey, obey him.16 I was on the brink of old-maid status when I lucked into a husband, so no way was I going let go of him. When polygamy looked his way and called out “yoo-hoo,” I convinced myself I needed to support him. He was the man. He held the Mormon priesthood. He knew best.
Not that you need to be Mormon to abdicate decision-making. Just make a habit of saying to yourself or your kids things such as, “Who are you to ask why?” or “What makes you think you know better than your parent/teacher/older sibling/church leader?” And always let others step in and solve your problems rather than risk personal growth from facing them on your own.
- There’s nothing quite so humbling as superiority. Mormons grow up believing they’re special. They were chosen before the foundation of the world to be members of the only true church.17 They are called to be missionaries and an example to the world. People admire them for their “standards,” such as the daily grueling effort they put into not drinking coffee.Mormon or not, understanding that you’re more “sighted” than other mere mortals prepares you to disqualify their warnings about going off the deep end. It’s not your fault they lack the sense to see that Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon, that the latest awful-tasting antioxidant cures everything from ingrown toenails to bad sitcoms, or that you’re only doing what Jesus would do. You have the inside scoop. You have vision. Anyone who disagrees is uninformed, duped, or a tool of the devil.
- Can’t turn back now. Demanding undue commitments of time, effort, and cash enriches cult leaders, but it also cements loyalty. That’s because the deeper people invest in folly, the more loath they are to consider they might have been taken. For a demonstration, ask the proud owner of a new pair of $400 name-brand sunglasses why an identical $25 knock-off pair isn’t as good. Chances are you’ll be treated to a lively round of post-purchase rationalization.18So, go ahead. Hand over an obscene amount of money to Gwyneth Paltrow,19 steam what she tells you to steam,20 and insert what she tells you to insert.21 When friends and doctors call you nuts, do not back down. It will be great practice for someday defending mortgaging your home so you can to afford to rehabilitate your thetan.22
- Don’t be such an ingrate. With the exception of lobbyists, no one does gifts of obligation better than cult members. In a practice critics call “love-bombing,” cultists shower prospects with time, attention, gifts, favors, assistance, and beguiling praise. To be fair, their motivation may be more altruistic than devious—most cultists, after all, believe what they preach—but the effect is the same: abandon or disappoint them, and you’ll feel like scum.To prepare for a wonderful cult experience, begin now by embracing concepts like “calling in a favor,” “you owe me,” “after all I’ve done for you,” and “I mustn’t disappoint anyone, even if it means doing what I’d rather not.”
- Trust US not THEM. Having mastered humble superiority, refusing to turn back, and not being an ingrate, you’re ready to hunker down with your tribe and see outsiders for who they really are: the enemy. Well-intended or not, they will try to pry you away. Family and friends on the outside are a negative influence best kept at several arms’ length.To prepare, understand that it will always be them against us. To better avoid people who don’t see things your way, develop ways to pick us out of a crowd of them. Want to know who else in the room is a Chopra fan? Casually mention “cosmic consciousness” and watch for someone to shoot you a nod. If you’re Mormon, look for the outline of sacred underwear.23 To pick out fellow Christian Scientists, mention not believing in medicine. Soon you’ll have enough peeps that you can rest safe from the influence of real friends with their damnable broad horizons.
- The cult is all you need. You need never look outside the cult for advice, answers, or fulfillment. Should you ever feel a question hasn’t been adequately answered or your needs haven’t been met, the problem isn’t the cult; it’s you. Your question is inappropriate or irrelevant, your need is selfish, or you’re not truly living the cult’s principles.You might begin conditioning yourself by eschewing expertise. Expert is shorthand for someone who doesn’t know what anyone with common sense knows, which is not at all circular, and which explains why so-called experts continually challenge What You Know to Be True. Also, tune out the news media, which will only depress you and make you doubt. You can’t trust reporters anyway. They all work for Big Pharma, Big Climate Change, Big Atheism, Big Medicine, or Monsanto.
- Cultivate a persecution complex. There is nothing more validating than persecution. After all, “. . . so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”24 Never mind that “you must be right” follows from “you’re persecuted” in much the same way that “people will love your haircut” follows from “cars have tires.”Real persecution exists, but I caution against seeking it. There’s no point getting your head lopped off when simply getting someone to tell you to shut the hell up will suffice. It’s not that hard to arrange. You might meet friends at a steakhouse, order a salad, and rhapsodize about veganism. Or, visit a vegan restaurant and rhapsodize about filet mignon. You might lecture coffee-dependent coworkers on the evils of caffeine25 as they quaff their umpteenth mug, pick on bottle-feeding or breastfeeding moms (your choice), or take an opposing view in a conversation about guns. You’ll soon be wailing “I’m soooo persecuted!” with the best of the martyrs.
- Keep secrets. Those necktie-bedecked, doorbell-ringing Mormon proselytizers never open with “We’d like to tell you about special underwear and take 10 percent of your gross earnings.” Nor do Jehovah’s Witnesses lead with “No more birthday parties for the kids.”Follow their lead. It is not—repeat, not—that your beliefs and practices are weird enough to scare off anyone with half the reasoning skills of a bell pepper. It is that newbies must learn to crawl before they can walk. And by that, I most emphatically do not mean waiting until they’re ensconced before showing your cards. Don’t be so cynical.
Learn to evade. Try answers like “It’s hard to say” or “That’s not important right now.” You might even add a touch of shaming: “That’s too personal,” “How dare you ask me that?” or “Don’t you have anything better to think about?”
- Learn to live with cognitive dissonance. Sometimes a cult’s claims may appear not to add up. Lucky for the cult, adherents bear the responsibility of denying cognitive dissonance.Mormons, for instance, have no trouble with the fact that when the Book of Mormon says Native Americans are Israelites, it no longer means that Native Americans are Israelites, and the reinterpretation merely coincided with but was in no way caused by DNA discoveries.26 Mormons are fine with knowing that in 1843 you couldn’t get to heaven unless you were a polygamist27 and now you can’t get to heaven if you are a polygamist.28 By the time I was an adult, nothing had to make sense for me to believe it.
With a little work, you too can believe things that make no sense. You might begin by aspiring to mathematically impossible success in a multilevel marketing scheme,29 insisting that Jenny McCarthy knows better than immunologists, or arguing that carbon doesn’t retain heat.
- Tolerate no criticism of the cult or its leaders. “This crime called blasphemy,” Robert Green Ingersoll said, “was invented by priests for the purpose of defending doctrines not able to take care of themselves.”30 Exactly! Your cult’s nutty beliefs and behaviors need your help. Allowing people to speak ill will only hamper it in its glorious mission. No wonder Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks quite reasonably pointed out in a 2007 PBS interview, “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.”31Until you’re ready to throw in with a cult, practice by summoning righteous indignation at the least amount of criticism of a teacher, parent, Elvis, iPhones, Vani Hari, any U.S. president, Oprah, or lululemon. For a real challenge, try defending George Lucas for having come up with Jar Jar Binks.
These days the woman in the mirror shows me a bit more empathy. The continuum between normal and cultish thinking can shrink and blur. Taking what might be otherwise harmless thinking to the extreme can sneak up on the best of us.
For whatever convergence of reasons, I was prime cult-bait. Had I taken a moment to breathe and think, perhaps I’d have found the wherewithal to scream, “Stop everything! This is crazy!” But then, did I even have the wherewithal to breathe and think? Beats me. All I know is that I’m grateful that my daughters and I are out.
I hope I have provided a glimpse into how someone might become cult-bait. The more of the above-listed behaviors you embrace, and the more fiercely you defend them, the better prepared you’ll be to sign up when someone offers you salvation, the happiness secret du jour, or the financial opportunity of a lifetime.
If you ignore everything I’ve advised and never awake to find yourself standing comfortably atop a mountain of absurdities, don’t come whining to me. I have done my best.
- “Mormon” is a nickname for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members. The church publicly renounced polygamy in 1890 under pressure from the U.S. Government while allowing the practice to ebb away under the radar over several decades. To the modern church’s chagrin, polygamist splinter groups persist, and the media tend to refer to all of them as “Mormon.” When the 2002 Winter Olympics focused media attention on Utah, the church tried to distance itself from splinter groups by asking journalists to avoid “Mormon” in favor of the church’s full name. You can imagine how well that worked. Facing the reality that there was no shaking the nickname, the church next tried to trademark “Mormon,” as if adding the ® symbol would make anyone take heed. The United States Patent and Trademark Office declined the church’s application.
- Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
- That is, female defectors are pursued. Boys and men who leave the FLDS are condemned but not pursued, for the practical reason that their departure leaves more women for the men who remain. Law enforcement is obliged to cooperate with parents, including polygamists, in returning underage children to them.
- The True and Living Church (TLC) members were neither violent nor threatening. When my husband and I left, our prophet confined himself to pronouncing a curse upon us. He told his horror-stricken flock that we would be “cursed with black skin” and become the “seed of Cain,” whom until June of 1978 Mormon doctrine regarded as the ancestor of “the Negro race.” I admit with regret that growing up Mormon and later in the TLC I had bought into that odious dogma. I also admit that for a few weeks after leaving the flock I checked daily to see if my skin had begun darkening. I no longer believe in curses, unless you count how easily my pasty white shoulders burn at the slightest hint of sun.
- It’s only sort-of true to say I grew up outside a polygamist cult. The mainstream Mormon Church, in which I grew up, discontinued polygamy in the early twentieth century but remains a polygamist cult in spirit: It defends its early polygamy as divinely mandated, reserves the right to reinstate polygamy should God so command, and teaches that men have multiple wives in the hereafter. Moreover, even without polygamy, other practices of the Mormon Church qualify it as a cult.
- About dead-center in the state, 124 miles south of Salt Lake City.
- My daughters dubbed me a “lawn chair” because I “fold so easily.”
- My ex-husband, not so much. He showed more of a fondness for pseudoscience and multilevel marketing. But then, he’s a chiropractor.
- Some people confuse cult with occult. They’re not helping.
- Steven Novella, “The Cult Demarcation Problem.” http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-cult-demarcation-problem/.
- Novella, op. cit.
- Don’t send it to Free Inquiry, either.
- Nudgeability really is a word. As of now.
- In 1995, the Mormon Church issued and still stands by the rather presumptuously titled, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Among others, the proclamation contains this gem: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation?lang=eng&old=true.
- The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints 1:30.
- No way am I going to provide a link to her page.
- Hint: It’s between the legs, and if you’re male, chances are you don’t have one.
- On second thought, don’t.
- Thetans bear a strong resemblance to nothing at all. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard defined thetans as: “. . . having no mass, no wave-length, no energy, no measurable qualities and no time or location in space except by consideration or postulate. The spirit is not a thing. It is the creator of things.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thetan.
- I advise discretion when checking for a physical sign setting apart Jewish men.
- KJV, Matthew 5:12.
- Good luck finding any.
- Until 2007, the Book of Mormon introduction claimed that a remnant of Israelites who had sailed to the Americas in 600 BCE were “. . . the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” Now it says that they were “. . . among the ancestors of the American Indians” (emphasis added). http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/lds/ci_7403990.
- Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132.
- In April 1904, Mormon prophet Joseph F. Smith “. . . issued a forceful statement, known as the Second Manifesto, making new plural marriages punishable by excommunication.” https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng&old=true.
- “But here is the problem that these whiteboard presentations always manage to omit. Of all the thousands of network marketing plans available now or in the past, if only one of them had ever had even a single line active to only fourteen levels deep, that alone would have required the participation of more human beings than exist. That math is black and white, too. Level fourteen is populated by 514, or about 6.1 billion people, the entire population of the planet, in addition to level thirteen with 1.2 billion, all the way up to you and your original five. You can answer ‘Oh sure, but a lot of the people don’t get all five or they flake somehow,’ but you forget that the entire premise has already eliminated those who flake or who don’t get all five. The unfortunate conclusion is that a fully invested network, upon which the whiteboard presentations are dependent, has never actually happened” (emphasis in original). —Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast #176; https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4176.
- Ingersoll, Robert G. The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll (in 12 volumes): Vol. VII, Discussions. New York: The Dresden Publishing Co., 1902.