The Ugly Truth Behind Real-Life Cults (inc. 12 T.)
When Jessica Goldberg first sat down to create The Path—the hour-long Hulu drama about family members in a fictional cult—she focused first on the core marital couple, played by Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan, whose marriage splinters when one spouse begins to question their faith. Her next step was laying the groundwork for the fictional cult, called the Meyerist Movement.
“I started doing a lot of research,” Goldberg told us by phone earlier this week. “I got a group of writers together and we decided the grocery aisle of our religion’s principles. We really culled some things in all different faiths including Eastern religions and a lot of Judeo-Christian stuff. But it’s a hodgepodge.”
One discovery during their research that Goldberg and her writers ended up mining for the series was the fact that, according to her, “Most cults are first generation. . . . They revolve around a very charismatic leader and when that leader dies, the cult’s over. That was something we went into, trying to figure out how you take a religion from a first generation to a second generation.” The series, through a compound leader played by Hugh Dancy, telegraphs that same predicament as the character struggles to keep the movement alive.
Even though the Meyerist Movement is inspired by a grab bag of religious practices and cult beliefs, viewers (like this one) might tune into the series because of their intrigue about cult mentality. To parse The Path’s accuracies and fictional liberties about cults, we reached out to Steven Hassan—former member of the Unification Church, founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, and author of Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-Selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults.
Although Hassan admitted that he was skeptical of the drama upon seeing the trailer (and having seen other television and film projects perpetuate common misconceptions about cults in the past), the Cambridge College alum revealed that, after seeing the first episode of the series, he was impressed by its accuracy and was interested in continuing the series. But first, he answered some of our burning questions.
Vanity Fair: Do cult members really recruit disaster survivors, like the Meyerist members are shown doing with tornado survivors in the opening shot?
Steven Hassan: The closest thing to anything like that is the Twelve Tribes—a pseudo-Christian communal cult that used to recruit kids at rock and metal concerts. They would go to rock shows in a bus and put a Red Cross flag on the outside of it and offer help for people who were having bad [acid] trips. They would recruit people that way, which was really devious and praying on the weak. But they wouldn’t drive them off to their upstate location [like they do on the show].
In my experience, cults that have been around for a while, and are larger, are much more sensitive to how they are perceived and do not do things that might make them look bad like prey on survivors of a national disaster. But [The Path’s writers] may have also read about Scientologists helping after 9/11 and going down to Haiti, which, in my opinion, is more for P.R. and getting wealthy donors to help than for recruiting members.
Do cults typically target survivors of recent trauma as recruits?
There are so many different types of cults that go after different populations, but in general cults really want to recruit smart, talented, intact people who can have trust funds, and who have skills, and who have education, because then they’re going to be more effective for the organization. They don’t want people with serious emotional, psychological drug dependencies because it’s going to take a lot of time and energy away from their activities elsewhere.
The public is woefully unprepared to understand the methodologies of destructive cults and how slick they are and how sophisticated they are. In particular, the cult I’ve been studying the most in the last year is ISIS and just how sophisticated they are on the Internet in using Hollywood imagery and video-game imagery and movie imagery, etcetera.
How destructive of a cult would you say the Meyerists are?
What is portrayed on the show makes it look totally benign. There are no breaking sessions [in which cult members destroy distinct personalities in their quest to brainwash members]. There’s no one making them turn over trust funds or stop talking to family members. [Aaron Paul’s character] was sneaking to the library and sneaking a call to the disbeliever. He felt like he couldn’t even tell his wife about his crisis of faith, so that indicates mind control. But it’s not like the group is trying to take over the world. It’s not like the leader is sodomizing little boys like Sathya Sai Baba [is accused of doing].
Can cult members actually have an Ayahuasca-aided vision as surreal as a dead family member telling them to be suspicious of their religion (as Aaron Paul’s character does)?
I’ve worked with some people who have had some bad experiences with Peruvian Ayahuasca cults. Do they have life-changing realizations? That is true. They have ceremonies were they take Ayahuasca and trip their brains out all night. Is it possible that his dead brother, on a subconscious level, is saying, “You should get the hell out of there”? Yes. That actually is plausible to me. It happens to my clients where they have “spiritual experiences” of this nature.
Aaron Paul’s character has to sneak out to use a computer to Google search his faith. How many cults discourage the use of the Internet?
A lot of the older cults that have been around for a really long time, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, and even the Mormons, are having a really hard time with young people growing up in the age of the Internet, because they’ve been basically telling lies to their followers about their history, and now people can easily find out what’s true and not true, and look at their own literature and copies of their own literature. It’s causing massive defections, which is very interesting for me.
Are vows an integral part of the movement for members?
In the cult I was in, members were bowing their heads to the floor Sunday morning at five A.M. reciting a pledge, a prayer service, to devote their heart and mind and soul to God and the group and to give their life to the fatherland in Korea. Vows are very common, both written and verbal.
Are members typically divided in ranks based on their knowledge levels?
This notion that there are different levels of knowledge is very important because, from my understanding, the legitimate groups tell you up front who they are and what they believe and want from you before they ask for a commitment, whereas the illegitimate cults kind of string you along and tell you that, when you are ready, they will tell you more. They make you jump through a million hoops before they share their secret knowledge.
Would a de facto cult leader like Hugh Dancy’s feel morally inclined to rebuff the sexual advances of a new recruit?
I don’t know how much this character is supposed to be a lieutenant versus an actual cult leader, but if he is supposed to be a lieutenant and a true believer and part of the teaching is non-sexuality until you’re married, which it appears to be, then he might say no to a bare-breasted woman, but not likely. When people ask me what drives people who are leading cults, I talk about power, money, and sex—money is not always number two but power is always number one.
You mention destructive cults—are there non-destructive cults?
If you think of a continuum, which is an arrow going to the left and an arrow going to the right, and the arrow going to the left is healthy, ethical influence, the arrow going to the right is destructive influence. The healthy influence respects people’s individuality and creativity, their conscience, and their free will. People can choose to follow or choose to leave, and there are no big threats around leaving. For example, people are in the Boy Scouts or they are in the Kiwanis Clubs.
The point is, are you free to leave? Are you free to join? Are you free to read whatever you want to read? Can you talk to former members? If the group is like, “Sure, talk to whoever you want to talk to,” they’re more likely to be on the left side of the continuum, and they may be a cult, but they’re not a mind-control cult, or a destructive cult, which, in my definition, is an authoritarian, pyramid-structured group, or relationship even.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.