Have you seen all the new shows right now that are focused on Cults? It seems to be the new thing for A&E and the ID Channel to create programming around. Oh look! These are scary, weird, titillating or unexplainable groups of people, so let’s investigate.

I was into cults long before cults were cool. Let me explain that. Several years ago, I found a book written by David Miscavige’s niece about her experience in Scientology. I was fascinated. So, I proceeded to read every book printed about Scientology. Then I read about the FLDS and Warren Jeffs. Again, I read every book. If you look at my iPad and Netflix account, it’s pretty telling: Children of God, David Koresh, Jonestown, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Heaven’s Gate, Rajneesh, Bikram yoga, NXIVM, Manson, and so on and so on. If there is a book or documentary about a cult, I’ve read/watched it. I honestly haven’t read a fiction book in 10 years. My family began to worry about me—they thought I was doing research on which cult I was going to join.

Nope. I just find it eternally interesting to try to understand how people can turn their will, their mind, their moral compass over to one person and be enveloped and consumed by the mentality of the cult of groupthink.

I’ve discovered a few things in my doctoral studies of cult behavior. Just kidding, but I’ve spent enough on these books to pay for a doctorate!

The Followers. With the exception of those who were born into a cult, there is a common theme among those who chose to join. Almost to a person they were searching. For something. Something more fulfilling in their lives. Some way to make a difference in the world. Some place that would provide a feeling of family and belonging. These were seekers who were not happy or satisfied with who or where they were.

The Leader. Some of the leaders of these groups began with good intentions. To provide a safe haven in chaos. To save the world. To worship in the way they saw fit. But, something dangerous happens to people who believe they have all the answers. Authoritarianism is a powerful drug. Each one of them soon convinced their followers that they were the ONLY answer. Most of them began calling themselves god or a reincarnation of a deity. They assure their followers that they have ultimate control over their lives and their “salvation”. And, because the siren’s song of certainty is so alluring, people believe them, never questioning when the path takes a dark and ominous turn. You can’t question a god.

Isolation and Fear. Every cult creates a bubble of protectionism around their followers. They are cut off from the outside world—it is scary and dangerous out there. They are cut off from family and friends—they are non-believers and will lead you astray. They are cut off from media or books—those are not my thoughts and will cause you to question the “truth”. The process of disconnection and declaring outsiders or former members suppressive people is Rule Number One in every cult’s handbook. Demands of total devotion and total submission is the only way they stay in power.

Fear is a determined motivator and every cult must be focused on something for everyone to be afraid of—End Times or Armageddon, going to Hell, the Sinful World, losing power, losing your life, rape, torture, failure, not saving the planet. Whatever button it takes, the leader knows how to push and manipulate and convince the members that, to avoid those terrible fates, one must stay in the protection of the cult. You must be One of Us to be safe.

Exploitation. When you believe that you are above the laws of the world, then you can justify any behavior you wish. Way too many of these cults use and abuse their members, especially women and children. Of course, I can have sex with a 12-year-old, who’s going to tell me no? Of course, I can murder people who oppose me, the importance of my work supersedes their right to live. Of course, I can demand that people work 80-hour weeks for no pay. They are MY members. That’s possibly the scariest part of the cult experience. A total disregard for rules of conduct, decency and law.

This is nothing new. Giving up one’s personal safety and even one’s life to follow a leader had been around since men figured out that war was more fun than farming:

72 years after the death of Jesus, with Jerusalem in ruins, the Romans turned their attention to taking down Masada, the last community in Judea with 960 Jewish rebels, including many women and children.

After several months of siege without success, the Romans built a tower on the ramp to try and take out the fortress’s wall. When it became clear that the Romans were going to take over Masada, on April 15, 73 A.D., on the instructions of Ben Yair, all but two women and five children, who hid in the cisterns and later told their stories, took their own lives rather than live as Roman slaves.

960 lives were lost, men killing their wives and children and then killing each other, so that they would not have to live under someone else’s laws.

On November 18, 1978, in what became known as the “Jonestown Massacre,” more than 900 members of an American cult called the Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide-murder under the direction of their leader Jim Jones.

Humm. . .

Now some people claim that all religions are cults. There may be a little bit of truth in that sweeping statement. Since the first story of Eden, human kind has been looking for something more, something that made us wise, something that helped us explain and control our environment. The assurances of gathering in a place with like-minded people each week and hearing that we are doing the right thing is comforting. The difference is, in most religious practices, if I choose to quit attending or stop believing, no one is cutting me off from my family or threatening my life or my livelihood. And while I admire and love my ministers, I know they do not have all the answers or are the final word on anything. (I hope they don’t read that!)

But, if you really think about it, part of the problem in our country is that we are all in our little cult isolation bubbles, holding fast to what we believe and refusing to listen and hear other viewpoints and differing attitudes. In some cases, we are disconnected from family and friends who hold positions that we find untenable. We are watching the dangers that can happen when people put their trust in authoritarian figures—left or right, conservative or liberal, religious or secular. We are in peril of losing our own moral compass in order to be certain that our group is right. We can justify horrible behavior to others because they are not One of Us.

And, beyond that, the heart-breaking news about depression and suicide has deep roots here. We are all seekers and too many never believe that who we are and what we are is good enough. So, we look for answers outside and, when we can’t find them, we decide that we’ll never be satisfied. Obviously, that’s a very simplistic explanation for an immensely complex circumstance, but the same drives that cause people to give up on themselves and join cults could be the same drives that cause people to give up on themselves… period.

So, take it from an expert. You are enough. You have gifts and talents and skills that no one else in this world has. And no one has THE Answer. No matter how much they try to convince you otherwise. Finding inner peace is a pre-requisite to finding world peace. We need to stop trying to be certain and, instead, be curious. About ourselves, our family, our neighbors, the people we fear and the ones we don’t know. That takes the power away from authoritarian leaders and repressive group demands. And, as they say at my church each Sunday, Love One Another. . . every single other. Not just the ones in your bubble.


Glenda Stansbury is Marketing Director of InSight Books and Co-Founder of InSight Institute Certified Celebrant Program. She is also a speaker, a trainer, and an observer of life, and one of Doug Manning’s adorable and talented daughters. You may email Glenda at