Cult research – part 2

By PD Martin

So, in my last post I looked at cults and people who are drawn to join them. Even though this isn’t officially my research series week, I feel compelled to deliver part 2 today! And part 2 is all about the leaders of cults, the gurus. I’d like to make it clear at the outset that I’m talking about negative, destructive cult leaders such as Charles Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones and Shoko Asahara (leader of the Aum group who released poison in the Tokyo subway). 

Most NRMs/cults have a single leader, a guru who claims ‘enlightenment’ and promises salvation to his or her disciples or would-be followers.

There have been many fascinating books and articles written on gurus, such as psychiatrist Anthony Storr’s Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners and Madmen, a Study of Gurus. In this book, Storr explores specific gurus (one chapter per guru); however, his introduction is particularly enlightening for general observations. As well as identifying gurus as elitist, narcissistic, arrogant, anti-democratic and intolerant of even minor criticism, he also concludes that they often experienced isolated childhoods. Storr’s negative observations don’t stop there either. He goes on to say that anyone can become a guru if he/she claims spiritual gifts and has the gumption to do so.  

Gurus have also been ‘explained’ using two models – the psychopathology model and the entrepreneurial model. In a 2005 article for the Journal of Cognition and Culture, M. Upal talked about the first model, in which gurus have some sort of mental illness such as hysteria, paranoia or schizophrenia and experience hallucinations that they perceive as divine wisdom. Certainly Manson seems to be an example of this type of cult leader. The entrepreneurial model, as the name suggests, is more about the guru as entrepreneur – they’re in it for money and power. And there is a lot of power for gurus.

In most cults or NRMs, the members’ daily movements and routines are closely monitored and the guru usually has complete control over the disciples. This is an essential step in the guru’s wielding of power. Luna Tarlo, mother of American guru Andrew Cohen, has talked about how her son lashed out at his disciples. Although he justified it by saying that disintegrating the personality leads to finding a true sense of self, his mother (who was also a disciple for some time before leaving the NRM) ended up describing it as cruelty.  

One of the ex-disciples I interviewed for a non-fiction book I’m working on, talked about many acts of cruelty and humiliation in the cult she was part of. Punishments dished out by her guru included banning married couples from living together, making ‘disobedient’ disciples comb the streets and pick up trash from dawn to dusk, forcing family members and disciples to eat out of dog bowls and general verbal abuse.

Storr also talks about gurus getting pleasure from exercising their power over disciples by ordering them to perform meaningless tasks and/or by punishing disciples who stepped out of line.

It’s hard for many of us to understand this power of the guru. And while the power is often abused and is something ex-disciples site as negative, at the same time even these people have strong positive feelings about what a guru is, or should be. Luna Tarlo likened surrendering to a spiritual teacher to falling in love, in terms of intensity. And even the ex-disciple I spoke to said: “The relationship between the disciple and the guru is very, very sacred.  You are born on this earth to meet up with one person, and that one person is your guru.”

In terms of the dynamic between the guru and the disciple, it seems it’s difficult to explain. Descriptions range from spiritual saviour to abuser. In The Guru Papers, authors Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad describe the power of a guru over his disciples as the most absolute power in existence.

Whether that power is good or bad is something that’s debated by current NRM members and those who’ve turned their back on their old guru and cult life. For those willing followers, the guru is everything – their light, their reason for being and their saviour. But for ex-members, they often perceive their old gurus as someone who physically and emotionally abused them.

From a psychological perspective, cult leaders have been defined as having both narcissistic personality disorder and/or as being psychopaths. Some traits of narcissistic personality disorder include: grandiose sense of self, need for admiration from others, lack of empathy, preoccupation with fantasy worlds (in which the person has unlimited success, followers, etc.), exploitation of others, and arrogant behaviour. This certainly does gel with many gurus and their behaviour.  It’s even been said that NRM leaders possess similar traits to serial killers (!) in the way they take power and sex to the extremes (quoted by Upal (2005), original source Wilson (2000)). It’s certainly an extreme statement, yet some of the personality traits do seem to be shared. 

In Captive Hearts, Captive Minds Madeleine Tobais and Janja Lalich identify the following as characteristics of cult leaders:

  • glibness and superficial charm;
  • manipulative and conning behaviour;
  • grandiose sense of self;
  • pathological lying;
  • lack of remorse, shame or guilt;
  • shallow emotions;
  • incapacity for love;
  • need for stimulation;
  • lack of empathy;
  • impulsive behaviour (child-like);
  • early behavioural problems (conflicts with authority figures and/or poor academic results);
  • unreliable behaviour;
  • promiscuous sexual behaviour;
  • no real life plan (cult is the life plan); and
  • criminal or entrepreneurial versatility.

Many of these fifteen elements overlap with traits of narcissistic behaviour and some of the personality traits often displayed by serial killers. I’m sure the Murderati readers and authors who’ve researched or read about serial killers can see the overlap!

What do you think? Are the gurus who lead in this destructive manner like serial killers?

PS In my next post, I’ll be interviewing Aussie author Katherine Howell.

27 thoughts on “Cult research – part 2

  1. Reine

    This is fascinating. I hadn't thought of cult leaders being like serial killers because they seem to be opposite in many ways. But as I consider the points you address above, I wonder if the similarities are there, being hidden in one and public in the other. While serial killers are secretive about their power, cult leaders have to be public enough to gather their followers and display their power. Both serial killers and cult leaders get off on their control of others, but the one does it privately, more or less, while the other gains control over a group. One is, I think, most often a short-term strike in series, while the other seems to have the long-term approach, adding their victims as they go along and nurturing their dependence over time.

    My mother belonged to a cult for almost ten years. I don't want to publicly state what, who, or where it was. She subjected me to to its teachings. That's how, in a round about way, I eventually came to the study of religion. I was interested in theology for many reasons and on different levels. One was certainly a goal for secular community ministry, but hidden in there somewhere was all that painful stuff . . . . Here are some quotes that I've saved. They are statements made by the cult leader. Someone else composed the list, but I heard him say all of the following many times over the years:
    "All women are whores."
    "All democrats are communists."
    "My logic is flawless."
    "I am the closest thing on earth to Jesus."
    "Women are the cause of all the misery and suffering on earth."
    "The dirty deed is only for making children."
    "I have never been wrong in 40 years."
    "The more educated you are, the more perverse you become."
    “You are a mentally ill pervert."
    “You are a stupid bunch of idiots.”
    “If you have cancer, you got it because you have sinned. If you don’t do what I say, you will go to hell where you belong. Good riddance to bad garbage.”
    “I am an endless source of knowledge when concerning the human condition."
    "Ninety-five percent of Americans in this country are very sick people but don’t know It."
    "Don’t you understand the future? It is very, very bleak.”
    “I am the one spoken of in the bible. These are the latter days, and I have been sent by God to separate the wheat from the chaff.
    “I am the only person who knows the truth, and I have the truth that will set you free."

    The quote about education is the reason I was 45 before I started graduate school. My education was discouraged by my parents and paid for by others— by my aunt who was, and is still, a mother to me and my husband, my mother-in-law, and scholarships and grants . . . never my parents. I was afraid of their derision for a long time, even though we were separated as a family. I longed to be renited with them. Going to college made me their target, but my Auntie-Mom supported and encouraged me. It is difficult to express how much of a hold that group had on me, even as it came to me through my mother. My father had his own craziness, completely inadequate word for his pathology.

    I hope no one here thinks I am unkind in not feeling bad about this influence my mother came under. I do. But she had a long history of abusive behavior long before she met the above guru. I do feel bad that, that was her life. It was miserable for her and torture for me.

    Mm. Sorry, I’m not sure I want to post this. If I do, I may be too embarrassed to post again. I feel I should. I want to. But if I disappear for awhile, I am just feeling like I have violated something and must feel safe before coming back.

  2. PD Martin

    Hi Reine. Thanks for sharing this difficult story with us. I know that I haven't been part of Murderati for all that long, but it certainly seems like a place where everyone who posts can feel safe. I'm so glad you told us about your personal experience with a cult and guru and I hope you don't stay away. Your comments are always interesting and insightful. And this one is no exception.

    All of those quotes you've mentioned sound very familiar to me in terms of the ex-cult members I've spoken to. A guru does have incredible power over his/her followers – as do our parents. I've spoken to someone who was raised in a cult from an early age until she could leave her family in her late teens – so difficult.

    Great points about the way serial killers and gurus exert power and control others.

    Anon: I agree!

    It's bedtime for me now, but I'll check back in tomorrow morning my time.

  3. David Corbett


    It's incredibly generous of you to post such detailed research for all of us to share. I tend to be far more miserly in that regard. I feel a bit small-hearted at the moment.

    I worked on the second trial of Larry Layton, the Peoples Temple member accused of conspiring to murder Rep. Ryan and the others at the Guyana airstrip. I'm one of only a handful of people who have listened to what is known as The Last Hours Tape, the recording of Jim Jones, over the sound of wailing cries and tears and screaming children, as he exhorted his followers to take their own lives. I interviewed a great many of the survivors, including Jones' son Stephen, and am friends with Mike Cartmell, who was one of the first defectors, and who led the charge to expose Jones, and feels guilt to this day for not being able to do more sooner.

    Not surprisingly, I found the most moving aspect of your research to be the part about the followers, not the gurus. Many of the PT folks were poor, forgotten, or wanted to belong to something larger than themselves, like a great many "believers," whether their faith is in the divine or social reform. I wonder if all such people aren't searching for the family they wish they'd had, but were instead saddled with one that abused or short-shrifted them in one major way or another. The comparison of a guru to a soulmate, with the romantic insinuations, was telling.

    I wonder sometimes if all of evil can't be traced to the inevitable and inescapable tension between wanting to surrender the ego to a greater, more selfless force or community, and the need to maintain some kind of unique, separate, individual integrity. One gets pliable dupes at the far end of the spectrum one direction, narcissistic monsters on the other. Aristotle's Magnanimous Man and the Buddhist ideal of moderation lie in the middle somewhere, as do other ethical paragons, while the rest of us skate back and forth between polarities until we settle down into something we call our identity, the useful illusion by which we negotiate our lives.

    In meeting and talking with the PT survivors, I learned not to judge those folks too harshly. They'd suffered enough — judgment especially, not to mention the horrible deaths of friends and family. Many were having a hard time keeping their lives together, and few dared make their previous relationship with the Temple public. They were good-hearted but not wise. Wisdom did come for some of them, but not in the form they'd expected, and at a terrible price. For others, there was drink and drugs, despair, suicide.

    Something else struck me as I read. I know some Tea Party folks who find the hero adulation of Obama sickening. And yet the person who leapt to mind as I read your description of a guru and his cult was Glenn Beck. Politics seems to be grimly cultish at times. (This may be beyond your realm of concern, being Australian, but I thought I'd toss it out there anyway.)

    Thank you for such a wonderful, thoughtful, useful post. A great way to start my morning. (Others may prefer cartoons — be forewarned.)


  4. David Corbett


    I second Phillipa's words. Don't retreat from the group. If you need to take a break, fine. But there was nothing in what you said that made me think any less of you — far from it. I thought it was generous and brave and insightful of you to share. These things can be strangely abstract until someone you know, someone you respect, tells you his or her story. It gets very real very suddenly then. And that's a good thing.


  5. KarinNH

    When I was a kid, the neighbor's two sons had drifted out to Haight-Ashbury, got heavily involved in the worst of the drug scene, and eventually ended up in a cult. The whispered story that went around the neighborhood was that their parents had them kidnapped from the cult and deprogrammed (it was the early 70s when anti-cult groups had gained traction) and returned home. What was left of them after all this was terrifying and left me very wary of anything even remotely resembling a cult.

    Scary stuff!

  6. Judy Wirzberger

    Goodness, I want to "talk" with everyone and isn't that exciting for a blog.
    David, you stir the pot that needs stirring; whether readers hate or love your words, they are involved…hooray!
    Reine, your life's journey is fascinating and has carved your spirit like wind carves sandstone.
    PD your succinct information explodes my previous concepts of cult leaders and members. My daughter, at a mania point, once professed to becoming a buddha. Her charisma enchanted even the policemen who should have been used to dealing mental illness in all its forms. I believe we all search for belonging, for validation, and lacking other places, the wandering mind seeks the percieved safety of the cult to fill a painful emptiness.
    Thanks for sharing the results of your labor (or labour). Judy

  7. Jenni

    Reine, thank you for sharing your experiences. I hope you feel free to continue to post. I've always noticed that once you share a deeply-felt issue, it is amazing how much support rises, how many other people have experienced something similar or known someone who has. In my own life, it's been the writing and speaking about issues that's most helped me overcome them. What you shared helps us all understand at a richer level the research Phillipa shared.

    David – I also thought politics in comparison, but I was thinking of how glibly we rushed into two, now three, wars. War is a huge issue for me, having been in a couple as a kid, and I sometimes think society at large is sociopathic for pushing so beligerently to bomb some country thousands of miles away every time a politician starts beating the war drums or insinuating some kind of threat. But maybe it's just a fear-driven dynamic, working the same way cults work, with a charismatic leader at the helm and a fearful public willing to accept whatever they are told. In any event, people here have no idea what it is like for innocent families, children, on the ground in a war zone. It is not something I would wish on my worst enemy, and it's my strong belief that war is a breeding ground for sociopaths both here and in whatever country we happen to be at war with – and we're ALWAYS at war against someplace, or some idea.

    Phillipa, great research. I meant to write last week when you posted Part I. When I was 17, I went with a group of friends to Delhi, and while there, we visited the Children of God cult. We spent an evening with them, eating a meal and playing music. It seemed very non-threatening at the time but may have been a near miss. I don't know. I was never tempted to go back to see them. The thing I remember most about it was that they told us they took fresh fruits and vegetables in to the European and American prisoners in the Indian prison system, but to support that, a lot of the women in the cult were "hookers for Jesus!" A different time and place. 🙂

    I do think that cult leaders are like serial killers. The end justifies the means, and they don't care who gets hurt in the process.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Phillipa – fantastic post. I eat this stuff up. Fascinating.
    And Reine…holy shit. That is an amazing story. I would think that would influence your writing – I would mine that source forever.

  9. lil Gluckstern

    Fascinating post. I've always thought that cult leaders and serial killers shared the same psychopatholgy, and you have really set forth their shared behavior. Some thing is missing in them. One thing I've noticed is that at one level, they are cowards, without the courage to relate on a real, authentic level. Reine, it takes a lot of courage to face what happened to us, It seems to me you should be proud of all you have accomplished. I really appreciate your posts because they are so personal, and I love hearing about the Boston area, one of my favorites. You would be missed.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PD

    I second Louise – a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    And Reine. I am constantly humbled and inspired by your bravery. You're always welcome and safe here ;-]

  11. Reine

    Thank you, everyone. I am okay. What I've been feeling is that sense of being emotionally naked, as if I'd exposed myself. Early this morning, before falling asleep, I saw myself as a woman, someone else who once crossed the street in front of my car in Boston. It was particularly remarkable to me, as the place is one that is frequented in many of Robert B. Parker's books. It is at Tremont and Boylston streets, near the Park Plaza Hotel, the Public Garden, PF Chang's, and Legal Seafood. I was on my way home from Cambridge when the woman stepped off the curb, fully naked. She was very large, and her breasts were swinging wildly in time with her eyes. Her vision appears to me whenever I feel vulnerable, but this time was different. This time when she stepped off the curb, her face was mine. And as the real woman had, I looked in my direction, then looked away and walked on.

    Thank you, kind ones. I am here.

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  13. PD Martin

    David: I'd love to hear more about your interviews with the members of the People's Temple. A post perhaps? And I definitely agree that many members of cults are searching for a family. And to a certain extent they do find that and a strong sense of community. Pretty much all the psychological research I found cited poor parental bonds as a major commonality between members of cults or new religious movements. And ex-members for that matter.

    Politics…I definitely think leaders of political parties need to have some of the characteristics of gurus, such as charisma and perhaps the promiscuous sexual behaviour (ha, ha). The political system is very different here. I've even thought about doing a post about it because basically each party only has six weeks of campaigning they can do before the election so we're only bombarded with ads for six weeks. And that's enough for me!

    And I loved your comment about Reine…beautifully put; of course, I've now realised this is the norm for you! Reine if you're getting the comments via email I hope you'll see how much we want you back for tomorrow's post…and the next, and the next, and so on.

  14. PD Martin

    Karin: Yes, cult-busting is a different and fascinating take on this subject. Mmm…maybe I should do a post about that at some stage in the future! To my knowledge, I don't think it's really done any more but it would be a great topic to research some more.

    Judy: glad you enjoyed the post and the comments. And I love your words to Reine…"your life's journey is fascinating and has carved your spirit like wind carves sandstone." Beautiful.

    Thanks, Louise.

    Jenni – so true about the personal experiences informing the factual research from the blog. Of course, that's the beauty of everyone's different experiences and having a blog like this where we engage with each other through the posts. And your comments on politics and war made me think of Hitler. I can certainly see the 'guru' in him. And your Children of God story is fascinating, and a little scary. Hookers for Jesus…wow!

    More soon…

  15. PD Martin

    Thanks, Stephen. Glad you enjoyed it. And you too, Zoe!

    Lil: Yes, there is a definite comparison between serial killers and cult leaders. Not in all personality elements, but certainly in some.

    Reine – sorry, just saw your second post. I'm glad you're still here 🙂 I think we all go through those moments of emotional nakedness and for the most part they're good for us even though they make us feel so vulnerable at the time. Thanks once again for your personal and insightful comments on gurus and cults.

  16. Reine

    Thank you Phillipa . . . David . . . Zoë . . . Lil . . . Stephen . . . Jenni . . . Judy . . . all encouraging comments – direct, indirect, anonymous, and via the fashion industry. I am following via iPhone, but we have just now lost electricity due to a monsoon. Yesterday we had a haboob – Jenni might know what that is. I first heard the term on last night's weather report. Um, anyway. Our electricity is out so I don't know if this will get through on the Internet, as our wifi depends on its little box being plugged in. I am hoping my cell will go into satellite mode. ::crossing fingers:: Temps around 100°F so it's heating up rapidly and muggly. (Not to be confused with muggle-ish behavior). I hope it comes back on soon, as I can't recharge my wheelchair or us my nighttime breathing assist. Curses. Foiled again. Well, all you authors and readers will be pleased to know that the esteemed Library of Congress has provided me with a Talking Book player with a 20hr reading capacity per battery charge. God bless America – even if we do have a THREE-YEAR ELEVEN-MONTH presidential election campaign season. Phillipa, please do blog about your politics – would love that. Ok – hope this works. Getting ready to press SEND . . .

    XOXOXOXO Reine

  17. Jenni

    Reine, the desert storm sounds terrible. When we lived in Libya we called it a ghibli, but I think they are also known as Siccoros. I'm not sure what the difference between a haboob, a ghibli or a siccoro is, but it might have to do more with location or direction of wind than anything. They all basically just bury you in dust, and some of these storms can change the landscape. Good luck with the electricity situation and with all the clean-up! I'm glad you're still here, still posting, and still in good spirits!

  18. Reine

    Hi- It appears our electricity is back. Yay! And temp dropped to 89°F- brilliant. Looks like my distressodramagram posted. Heh.

    Jenni, thanks for the info. I think there are more names for desert storms in places where the spoken language has been there for centuries – not like English in Diné and other country. Haboob is kind of fun to say. I just looked on the Internet and learned that yesterday's haboob was Tucson's fault. Hah. See here for the article: "Inside the Phoenix Haboob: How a Tucson Storm Started it All [OF COURSE]

  19. Laura

    PD – Fantastic post. I love reading about your research, and I look forward to reading more 🙂
    Reine – That's so incredible, and brave of you to share. Thank you!

  20. Reine

    Laura, thank you. Really it was Phillipa's clarity and nonjudging attitude toward her subject made it possible. I have struggled with humiliation and guilt – the type, I think, that David mentions above . . . just not on that scale.

    Phillipa, I wanted to say something about the ease that it can tale for a rational person to be pulled into cult relationship. The people I knew, like my mother, whose minds were consumed with their leader and his teachings had a kind of "salvation" experience. For my mother it was alcohol and drug dependence. On hearing the leader speak she was able to give up her addictions with little effort. That made him right. I admit to being impressed with that, myself. My mother appeared to be a different person.

    In fact, however, she had become dependent on his sayings and rules and absorbed everything he said as Truth. She became horribly cruel, calling it love. She became the horror that I remembered from my childhood. I thought she needed to get back on track with the teachings of her new "church." I really didn't get it. So – a lot of my guilt comes out of that.

    It probably doesn't make sense, but I had no comprehension of the mechanisms or what really was going on with that group. I had such hope, and when she was imploding, my father was exploding with his own cruelty. I didn't see him again until he died.

    I know I don't sound happy, and I wasn't then. I wasn't happy for a long tome after. But I am now.

    After my parents died, my life started to improve. I was able to go on. I worked hard at recovering from their torture. I had to dig through the myths I'd incorporated into my self over a lifetime. It is hard work letting go of all those things you think are you but are there only because you had to survive. Now I learning more about each of my parents. And as bad as it appears to be, it is freeing, because it makes sense of the craziness and pain. It explains what happened, that it was them, and it was not me. For a long time though, I felt almost like I wasn't here, that there was no me. I am grateful to learn that I was here all the time, I just didn't recognize myself. Auntie-Mom, thank you.

  21. PD Martin

    Reine – no worries re hijacking!

    Laura, glad you enjoyed the post. There will be more research in the months to come 🙂

    Reine – yes, I think it is quite easy for many to be drawn into a cult. And I would also be impressed if someone 'cured' major drug and alcohol dependence so easily. Although it sounds like your mother replaced one substance and high (drugs) with another – a guru who offered salvation and as such gave his followers a 'high'. Thanks again for adding to this discussion.


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