This vignette illustrates how several different mind control and other common cult tactics were woven together to exert control over a group.
My former cult experienced a mass exodus of members recently and many called me for advice or comfort. The reason for the exodus was two-fold. First, the cult leader announced a huge doctrinal change that was very unpalatable to many members. Specifically, he announced that the group no longer recognized Jesus as Messiah or Son of God. This is probably the largest non-negotiable doctrinal issue in the faith he professed to follow and teach. It was an incredibly foolish move on his part, but that is for another article.* Second, the leader and his wife had meddled in and broken up several marriages under the false guise of “biblical counseling.” The pattern was almost always the same; advising the wife to divorce a husband who refused to “follow God” (i.e., explicitly obey the cult leader), thereby gaining another woman and her family living on the cult property and dependent upon the cult.
The abandoned men and one woman finally had enough and banded together to fight this dynamic. They were helping one of the men whose wife had told him she was going to the store and then emptied their bank account and drove 200 miles with their 5 children to live on the cult leader’s property. People were fighting back along several avenues, including social media and the legal system. The leader and his lieutenants fought back with counter-accusations and, in some cases, threats and intimidation.
Soon after the smoke cleared from the departure of many members, the cult leader implemented the tactics below to regain control of the remaining people. The tactics are a clear illustration of both mind control and some common cult tactics.
The mind control tactics used were:
The cult tactics all fall under The One True Faith umbrella:
The cult leader implemented these tactics in three phases:
- Claims of persecution of the righteous
- Purging of the unrighteous
- Playing the humble servant
Persecution of the Rightous
When people started to oppose the cult for its abuse and splitting up families, it was spun as persecution of the righteous, with the righteous being the cult. This persecution was framed as the “hard road” that “true believers” follow, suffering unjust treatment from evil people. None of them examined whether it might just be simple cause and effect of them treating people badly and destroying families, so those people now hated them. After enough people were treated badly, there were overt words and actions against the abusers, which again was spun as persecution of the righteous.
The same dynamic occurred when the leader went off on a wild, anti-doctrinal tangent and members left the congregation in mass. They then ridiculed the departing people and tried to intimidate some into returning. Some of those who left lashed out in return. Those lashing out were deemed “unworthy” and of “little faith,” and the remaining cult members were reframed as “true believers” and “righteous.” The cult leader again stated that this was persecution from evil people who had left the group. In this way, the normal human learning process was short circuited and the cult members made no connection between their actions, the leader’s actions and how others began treating them.
This is the height of both irony and lunacy, invoking Jesus’ own words about being persecuted … because people left the cult after the leader rejected Jesus. Nobody remaining the cult seemed to make that connection either.
This phase used the following tactics:
- Dispensing of Existence – the people who left the group were deemed as unworthy and evil. They would naturally persecute the good and worthy people still in the group, because that is what evil people do. The cult leader was the arbiter of determining who was worthy/good and who was unworthy/evil.
- Loaded Language – persecution is the most obvious loaded word, when there was no persecution happening. It was just simple cause and effect of the cult leader and members abusing people. The leader would throw out the loaded word anti-Semitic at every opportunity as well to play upon the emotion stirred by that word. Ironically, the leader and congregation were not Semites or Jewish, so it was a complete non sequitur.
- Demand for Purity – the “purity” here is what the cult leader told others to do, think and follow. Any deviation from this was not tolerated and the people were expelled from the group. Those who “saw the wisdom” and remained, were deemed pure. Those who left the cult on their own were also deemed unworthy because they could not handle the purity within the cult.
- Appeal to Emotion – this works in conjunction with the Loaded Language above. Making the people feel like they were being persecuted for being superior to others created solidarity with the cult leader against those who came against him. The word and concept of persecution was far more emotionally loaded and powerful than the simple truth of what was happening, which was just disagreement. Add anti-Semitic to the mix and it became racism where there was none.
Purging of the Unrighteous
When a large group of people left the cult due to radical doctrinal changes by the leader and some getting tired of his control and abuse, he called it a great purge to reframe it as God removing the unworthy from the group. He then reframed the remaining members as being refined into the best. He stated:
I am witnessing a fire that is testing and proving the pure gold!! And removing the fake and lukewarm. I am witnessing an assembly that is stronger than ever in our existence and only getting stronger.
Then later a woman charged with blessing the men during worship service gave the following speech:
Father, I want to give you great thanks and praise for bringing the men that are in this fellowship. The men that are still standing here strong. Standing here wanting your righteousness and truth. I want to thank you also for the purging. For … just like the darkness and the light … to see the men that are still here wanting to serve you, compared to the darkness. That they are seen for what they are, for who their hearts are serving. And I want to praise you for the security that I feel, even me, and I assume that most in this fellowship would feel the security of the men who are leading us and I praise you for that.
One of the cult lieutenants dutifully parroted the purging theme on social media:
Purging is a good thing. Our “friend” list has gotten a bit lighter. Questions are a good thing … attacking the righteous through vicious libel, threats, slander, gossip, etc. gets you a one way ticket out of our life.
Every man who questioned what was going on in the cult was labelled as “darkness” that had to be purged. Those who remained and continued to obey the cult leader without question were deemed “righteous.” There was no critical thinking about what these men said or the issues they raised. It was all framed as God weeding out the unrighteous evil people. This served two purposes:
- Those remaining felt themselves superior to those who questioned the leader, thereby subconsciously reinforcing in their minds that obedience = superiority
- They shunned and broke contact with the men of “darkness,” thus reducing the chances that these men might talk some sense into them
Having a group member parrot these words emphasized them through repetition and providing secondary sources to reinforce the groupthink that this must be correct and true. This group member had recently been elevated to a higher position within the cult, so she was eager to please the leader by reinforcing words he spoke before the group and had undoubtedly spoken to her in private as well beforehand. All of this was orchestrated to look like it was spontaneous, so the group thought more people believed this. It wasn’t just men who left the group. A lot women left the group as well. The remaining cult members applied the same emotional suspension of logic to them.
This phase used the following tactics:
- Mental Misdirection – this is the most glaring tactic in play here. The cult lost at least half of its members due to abuse and blunders by the leader. Most of these members had been effectively mind controlled prior to that. This represented a big loss in both income and power base, yet the leader spun it as a huge success brought about by God, because the leader moved in a wiser direction. The cult leader spun a negative thing (people leaving because of dissatisfaction with the group) as something positive (a purging of evil and unworthy people). Also stating that questions are a good thing, while intimidating or expelling those who ask them behind the scenes.
- Dispensing of Existence – through the above mental misdirection, the leader was again determining who was worthy and unworthy. Who belonged and who did not. Who was accepted and who was shunned. Although he claimed it was God doing this, it was really him. Since the departed people were no longer under his control, he marginalized them to negate their possible influence on the cult.
- Demand for Purity – black-or-white thinking in which only the cult leader’s way, which he just changed very drastically from the previous way, was the correct one.
- Loaded Language – this example is rife with it. Consider the words. Darkness, vicious, threats, libel and slander for those who questioned the cult leader. Strong, light, righteous, and security for those who obeyed without question. Fellowship as the approved “in” group. Moreover, the new word purging was being employed and repeated to create a new loaded word to be used whenever the leader needs to shut down the members’ critical thinking. These words were thrown out repeatedly by the cult leader and then repeated by loyal members to reinforce the message without any facts to back them up. We are good light. They are bad darkness. Obey me or you will also become bad darkness. Once again, no facts to connect anything. Just emotionally loaded words to control the group. The cult leader’s words of gold and lukewarm are straight from the bible, but taken out of context. In fact, they were spoken by Jesus, the very Messiah the cult leader now denied. Completely illogical, but it worked on a lot of people.
You cannot make up this stuff. A small core group of people still eagerly swallowed every word he spouted.
Playing the Humble Servant
In the final phase, the cult leader portrayed himself as the humble servant, possibly to try to do some damage control in the face of all the people fleeing his abuse and doctrinal changes. He proposed an interactive class where they could discuss the doctrinal changes as a congregation and that he would be open to any questions or challenges. His exact words were:
What I would like to do is … because you know, I’m always open for ideas … I’m always open … I’m never narrow-minded … at least I try to be. I want to get you guy’s opinion when it’s done. You know they say that … you know … that more than one brain is better. More than one thought is always a good thing. So I wanna, I wanna think outside myself. Ok. I want the audience in here to please tell me … please tell me … if I’m wrong. Please. Because, you know, you owe me that much at least. You know what I mean. Tell me if I’m wrong, and then we can kinda go from there. That’s what I mean. I wanna hear everybody’s opinion. So it’s going to be a very interactive class tomorrow, is what I’m saying. So please do not come … don’t come with being silent. We won’t be recording. It’s an interactive class, so I do want participation from all of you. It’s ok with the challenges. I’m very open for the challenges. It’s not a problem. I don’t see them as a threat. It’s a good thing. We’re trying to learn. We’re trying to explore as a congregation. Like I said, another set of eyes and another set of brains is better than one.
How did this contrast with the leader’ actions in the past?
- He threw an elder out of the congregation for questioning group’s finances and doctrine
- He threw a man out of the congregation (and convinced his wife to divorce him) for questioning the leader’s right to interfere in his marriage. He further slandered the man in front of the congregation with false charges of violating bible commandments.
- He thew a woman out of the congregation for questioning how a holy day was observed
- He called a man anti-Semitic and a liar for asking the leader to show his credentials
- He threw a man out of the congregation for questioning the leader’s refusal to put a stop to bullying within the congregation by a cult lieutenant
- He convinced a woman to leave her husband, taking their children with her, and come live on his property because the husband questioned what the leader was doing.
- He commanded another cult lieutenant to divorce his wife because she questioned him on religious doctrine
- He viciously chewed out the congregation for two hours because one of them had gone “behind his back” and asked questions of a rabbi whose favor and endorsement the leader was trying to curry
- He threw a woman out of the congregation who questioned the youth leader getting too close to her grandson
These are just things of which I have personal knowledge. I would imagine there are many more. Does this sound like a man who is even remotely open-minded and not threatened by challenges? The contrast is so stark and glaring that it cannot be ignored, yet that is exactly what most of his followers continued to do. Why did they continue to follow? Because of mind control. He shut down their critical thinking. The above is just one of many ways in which he did this.
Why did he employ this tactic? There are several possible reasons:
- Mental misdirection. Giving a false sense of security while also keeping cult members off balance. This is like intermittent reinforcement of positive and negative. The members feel that finally they have broken through to the positive and will open themselves up, which leads to …
- Gathering data about who is loyal and who is not. The leader will use this opportunity of faking to be tolerant to get people to speak freely and identify possible future threats so he can begin work behind the scenes to either control them through vulnerabilities, or marginalize them ahead of time for eventual dismissal.
- Impression management for the newer cult members and those viewing online who have not experienced all the dynamics yet. They will now dismiss any rumors of the leader being controlling or abusive as slander from disgruntled people who have an ax to grind.
So how did this open and tolerant class play out on the next day? Past performance was a solid indicator of future actions. First, the usual public video streaming was blocked and password protected. Why would a tolerant leader who is not threatened by challenges restrict access to his teachings? Second, the first person who brought up an opposing view during the class was physically removed from the building and banned from ever setting foot on the property again. This built upon the purge misdirection and further solidified it in the minds of the congregation members. This does not sound very open-minded at all. On the contrary, it sounds like the cult leader saw the challenge as a big threat, in direct opposition to the flowery and false words he gave just 24 hours earlier.
A prominent Rabbi the cult leader was trying to con into ordaining or endorsing him to provide legitimacy saw the entire escapade when someone secretly provided him with the password and link to the class video stream. The Rabbi stated that the cult leader’s doctrinal assertions were very weak and easily disproved. He also stated that the leader was faking his knowledge of Hebrew to appear like an expert to the group. Many of the translations were “not even close” and “every point he made was an error.” This reinforces that the man is a cult leader and con artist rather than a legitimate religious leader and man of faith.
This phase also used the following tactics:
- Demand for Purity – the cult leader had the first person questioning him physically removed from the building. This was framed as the man being impure and evil, rather than simply disagreeing or questioning.
- Dispensing of Existence – the cult leader was the arbiter of who belonged and who did not, even in a tolerant and open classroom
- Mental Misdirection – as stated above, it gave the group a renewed sense of security. Of course, this sense of security was just as quickly removed again. This is something known as intermittent reinforcement. Video and gambling games use it with great success. You know a reward is out there because you’ve received it before (in this case, a kind religious leader who praises you). When it is removed and you get the nasty tyrant, you will work twice as hard to get the nice one back again. It also sets up something called explicit versus implicit programming. In this case the explicit programming, shown by words, is that the leader is open-minded and not threatened by disagreement. The implicit programming, shown by actions, is that he will swiftly eliminate any source of disagreement. Since they are opposites, it produces confusion in the cult members and shuts down their critical thinking. The implicit programming is then able to target them at an emotional level. They fear disagreeing with the leader and will obey that programming even when the leader is not present.
One of the tools of the cult leader’s trade is emotionally loaded buzzwords. The earlier trickle of people who left were declared “rebels.” The mass exodus that followed later was declared a “purge.” The very choice of these words already loaded them with emotion. Rebel versus former member. Purge versus leaving. The cult leader’s words were already primed with emotion and he added even more to seal the deal. An us-versus-them mentality was created from the start where those not obedient to the cult leader were apostates from The One True Faith. He then proceeded to load the language with more emotion by using by cherry-picked bible verses. Many of these bible verses did not even apply, but the goal was to inject emotion, not truth or logic.
The cult leader seeks the same thing as Satan. To control the mind, body and spirt of the people. In his quest, he deludes the cult members into thinking they are giving these to God, when actually they are giving them to the him.
The Microcosm of Mind Control
One of the leader’s most loyal lieutenants, the same one threatening and intimidating people who left the cult, stated on social media that “true courage means not conforming.” All the while he conformed to everything his master, the cult leader, dictated. He dutifully regurgitated all his buzzwords and served as one of the cult enforcers. Complete shutdown of critical thinking. His actions were the exact opposite of his words, yet he passionately believed they were perfectly aligned.
This man also spoke loudly and posted on social media about how open minded and tolerant he was. Words like:
A person need not become excessively upset just because others oppose him. [Just throw them off the property.]
Also, calling someone you disagree with names like “hateful” is the lowest, laziest, and least effective form of argument. If all you can do is insult, you only embarrass yourself. [Instead, call them anti-Semitic rebels and purge them.]
Yet he did exactly those things in the service of his cult leader. He also posted:
Some people are so focused on bringing others down that they fail to realize it’s that mentality that keeps them on the bottom. [A few months prior to that, he had bullied and ridiculed another man out of the congregation, so that he could take the position that man had. Once again, his actions were directly opposite of his words.]
A woman in the cult posted:
Truth requires courage. Truth requires integrity. Cowards tell lies. Cowards support liars. Telling a lie is easy. Believing a lie is easy. In times like these it takes all the courage in the world to question the status quo and to speak up and tell the truth. [This woman lied to her husband that she was going to the store, then emptied their bank account and took their children to the cult. She then lied in court that her husband and oldest daughter, who would not join the cult, were abusing the other children.]
These people sincerely believe the falsehoods they utter. They sincerely believe that their actions line up with their words. In fact, they are fervent about it and declare others who are truthful to be the liars. Cult leaders turn their members into personality clones of themselves. Thinking like them, acting like them, and most importantly dependent upon them. This is what mind control looks like.
The Sad Reality
The sad reality is what will happen to these controlled cult members after the leader inevitably discards them when they are no longer useful to him. I say inevitably because I witnessed this many times during the two short years I was there. The popular member du jour who was elevated and praised was then unceremoniously thrown out of the group mere months later and vilified as “unworthy.”
These former members are now left with nothing. Their former cult wants nothing to do with them. The friends and acquaintances they shunned, maybe even abused, to please the cult leader want nothing to do with them either. The friends do not understand or care that it was not the person’s fault, but rather the cult leader’s mind control over them. All they know is that the former member hurt them and they want no part of it anymore
Family members who were split apart and discarded at the command of the cult leader also want nothing to do with the former member. They feel betrayed even more deeply than the friends and acquaintances. How could a mother, father, husband, or wife turn their back on their family? They also will not understand or care that it was mind control. The family will not reunite and is lost forever.
Cult members who commit illegal and criminal acts for the leader have it even harder. The police, courts, judges, and juries also will not understand or care that they were being controlled. They did it, so they pay the price. Any attempts to explain will just look like trying to dodge responsibility and things may turn out even worse for them.
I must admit, that even after having studied these dynamics over the years and understanding what is happening, I have very little sympathy for the mind-controlled people who are doing damage. I certainly will not take any of them back into my life, whether they are at fault or not. There is no trust left, regardless of how it happened. Fair or not, there is a tendency to tire of their nonsense and begin viewing them as stupid, mindless sheep who will believe anything. Sadly, this isolates them even further.
The cult leader is the only one who escapes scot-free from consequences, unless he is also caught for illegal or criminal acts. This does happen quite frequently, so many leaders eventually get their due. However, this is of little or no consolation to those who were caught up in his swath of destruction.
* The consensus among many former cult members is that the leader rejected Jesus in an attempt to obtain a “Rabbi” title without doing the work to earn it. He tried to con a succession of legitimate Rabbis into “ordaining” him, since he had now converted to Judaism (Jews do not accept Jesus as Messiah) and already had a congregation. This is a possible indicator of narcissism or psychopathy. As of this writing, his attempts were still unsuccessful.