When I was in my twenties I went on a meditation retreat with a friend of mine. We were stressed and, whilst not particularly spiritual, we thought that a long weekend away from the hustle and bustle of Brighton life might help clear our minds and chill us out. The reality was an experience that was exhausting, intense and somewhat bewildering.
We were woken at 5am every day and marched off to the meditation building. Breakfast, eaten in silence and with meagre portions, was next. There were a series of seminars throughout the day and we were encouraged to open up about any traumas that had occurred in our lives. Neither of us did but we heard some pretty harrowing stories from the other people who were attending the retreat. Often the seminars went on past midnight which meant we hardly had any sleep before we were woken for meditation again. When we tried to skive a meditation session we were approached by members of the retreat, separated, and asked ‘if everything was ok’ and encouraged to continue visiting the group in their Brighton home after we returned home from the retreat.
After a couple of days of this we were both exhausted from lack of sleep, hungry from lack of food and overwhelmed by all the traumatic revelations, advice and suggestions. I suggested, only half-jokingly, that we were being recruited for a cult and my friend agreed that something very weird, and very wrong, was going on. We skived a seminar, got in my friend’s car and drove off before anyone could stop us. We headed straight for Brighton and the nearest pub and had a good laugh about our ‘lucky escape’, but not everyone who is lured into a cult is so easily able to get away.
I’m fascinated by cults and the way in which they lure in vulnerable people and then convince them to stay. Before I wrote THE LIE I did a lot of research into the subject and the two books I found the most helpful were Combatting Cult Mind Control: The Number 1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue and Recovery from Destructive Cults by Steven Hassan and Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control by Kathleen Taylor.
Hassan says there are four components of mind control:
Control of behaviour
Control of thoughts
Control of emotions
Control of information
Control of behaviour
Once part of a cult an individual’s behaviour is regulated. This includes where she lives, what she wears, what she eats and how much sleep she gets as well as what jobs and rituals she has to perform. In most cults there is always something to do. Behaviour is controlled by forcing everyone to act as a group. Individualism is discouraged and everyone must eat together, work together, have group meetings and often sleep together in the same room. A cult leader cannot control someone’s innermost thoughts but if they can control their behaviour, hearts and minds will follow.
Control of thoughts
Thought control involves indoctrinating the new member. The cult may have a special language it uses that helps members feel special and separates them from the general public. Members are trained to disbelieve criticism from outside the cult and are encouraged to use ‘thought stopping’ techniques to stop bad thoughts and drown out negativity. Concentrated praying, chanting aloud, meditating, singing or humming can aid this. This becomes automatic after a while and can even become addictive.
Control of emotions
Guilt and fear keep people under control. Members are kept off balance. One minute they are praised, the next they’re criticized. This fosters a feeling of dependency and helplessness. Members are encouraged to confess their past sins but this is often used against them. Sexual relationships are controlled – members of the cult can only have sex according to the rules of the cult. Phobia indoctrination is used to induce a sense of fear about leaving the cult. Members are made to have panic attacks at the thought of leaving – sweating, rapid heartbeats and an intense desire to avoid the possibility. They fear that, if they do leave the cult, they’ll go insane, become drug addicts or be killed.
There is no access to the outside world in a cult – no TV, radios, newspapers, just cult propaganda. Members are not allowed to talk to each other critically about the leader, doctrine or organisation. They are encouraged to spy on each other and report improper activities.
So how do cults achieve mind control?
There are three stages according to Hassan:
The new member is disorientated physiologically i.e. they are deprived of sleep, are introduced to a new diet and a new schedule for meal times. They are bombarded with emotionally charged material so they feel overwhelmed. This forces the mind to go into neutral where it ceases to evaluate the information pouring in. New members are encouraged to talk about the problems and issues they have in their lives. These issues are then blown out of proportion to prove how messed up the new member is and how much they need help. They are offered guided meditations, personal confessions and prayer sessions. They are told, ‘If you admit there are things in your life that aren’t working then, by not taking the seminar you are giving those things power to control your life’ thereby forcing them to attend the seminars that will further increase the emotional bombardment needed to break them down. Once this has happened they are ready for…
Changing involves giving the new member a new set of behaviours, thoughts and emotions to fill the void left by the breakdown of their old self. This new way of being is fed to them in a repetitious, monotonous way. They are told how bad the world is, how the leader is their only hope of lasting happiness and how their old self is stopping them from experiencing this new truth. If the member is having doubts other members of the cult will approach them and repeat the new doctrine. ‘Sharing sessions’ with members of the cult take place where past evils are confessed, present success stories are shared and a sense of community is fostered. Anyone who asks too many questions will be isolated from the group.
Once change has taken place the new member will be built up again into a ‘new man’ or ‘new woman’. They will be paired with an older member of the cult who’ll show them the ropes and they’ll be given a new name, clothing style, haircut etc. Anything that reminds them of the past will be eradicated and the new member will begin to speak the ‘jargon’ of the group.
Looking back now I can certainly see elements of the cult mindset in the meditation retreat I attended may years ago. They may have been a totally innocuous group of people with the best of intentions but I’m still relieved I didn’t stick around to find out. So how does all this tie in with what happens to Emma, Daisy, Leanne and Al in my new psychological thriller THE LIE? I guess you’ll have to read it to find out!