ByJancy Richardson, writer at
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Jancy Richardson

If you're interested in the darker side of life, the evil that humans do and the effects of those actions, you can satisfy that morbid curiosity with our MP Super News series Cults & Conspiracies. Inspired by season 2 of Hulu's The Path, Cults & Conspiracies investigates how cults and radical ideologies work their dangerous magic on the unsuspecting. Episode 1 focussed on the Jonestown Massacre, and this week we're digging deeper into cult behaviors and how to recognize brainwashing techniques.

Check out Cults & Conspiracies episode 2 here.

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Using the kidnapping and brainwashing of heiress Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) as a case study, Cults & Conspiracies talks to expert and cult-deprogrammer Rachel Bernstein about many aspects of recognizing and reversing cult brainwashing.

How To Identify a Cult

Bernstein makes the distinction between a "cult" which may be a more benign, albeit slightly odd fringe group or sect, and a "destructive cult," which causes harm to its members or compels them to do harmful things to others. The main tell-tale signs that a group is a cult are, according to Bernstein, as follows:

  • Unquestioning devotion: members are forbidden from criticizing the cult.
  • Deception / Lack of Information: information regarding the cult's true nature is withheld from current or prospective members.
  • Omnipotent position of leader figure: the leader figure commands total respect and is elevated to a god-like status.
Patty Hearst's mugshot after robbing a bank with the her captors, the SLA [Credit: FBI]
Patty Hearst's mugshot after robbing a bank with the her captors, the SLA [Credit: FBI]

What is Indoctrination?

Bernstein identifies the two main methods of indoctrination, used by destructive cults to engender obedience in their members:

  • ''Love-bombing'' — making a person feel special and wanted, presenting one answer to all of life's problems. ''You are so unique and special that we want to love and treasure you in our group''
  • ''Fear induction'' — the flip-side of ''Love-bombing,'' fear induction taunts a prospective member with their fears then offers the cult as the only salvation from what they're afraid of. ''You will be alone, unloved and in danger unless you join us.''

The Process of Cult Brainwashing

  • Step 1: If you do what we say, you'll achieve happiness.
  • Step 2: If it doesn't ''work'' and you don't find happiness, then it's YOUR fault.
  • Step 3: It's WRONG (morally and logically) to disbelieve the cult's message.

This strips the vulnerable of their critical faculties, taking away their only defense from brainwashing. Bernstein also hints that there's a certain ''loss averse'' mentality: even if a member realizes that things are a bit weird or they're not comfortable with the cult environment, they're too embarrassed to give up. If you'd devoted your life to something family and friends had criticized, your pride would take a real dent admitting you'd been wrong. This results in members who ''fake it 'til they make it,'' playing along with the cult's activities until they become so normalized they really do start believing it.

Your host Dash and cult expert Rachel Bernstein  [Credit: Movie Pilot]
Your host Dash and cult expert Rachel Bernstein [Credit: Movie Pilot]

As a Cult De-Programmer, Have You Ever Been Threatened?

Bernstein experienced threatening behavior from the Church of Scientology, which made her realize quite how serious — and how needed — her work in deprogramming had become:

''They tend to come after you, they tend to come after your license... I had some pretty thuggish PIs leaning on the hood of my car... people calling my clients telling them I was guilty of all these crimes... they just mess with you.''

How Can You Help Someone In A Cult?

Bernstein advises caution when approaching someone you suspect may be part of a cult. Don't refer to the group as a ''Cult'' — "Don't use the C-Word!" — and be positive rather than negative. Let the person know that you're safe to talk to by instigating an inquisitive but gentle conversation with neutral questions such as "What's your new group like? What do you like about it?" Be warned, however, as cults anticipate intervention from outsiders:

''Cults will often prepare their members for any kind of intervention from the family. ''Your family will tell you it's a cult... this proves that they don't love you and they're trying to control you''"

On the next episode of Cults & Conspiracies we'll be looking at the history of the Ku Klux Klan and the modern movement of Neo-Nazis that still persists today. Cults & Conspiracies airs Wednesday 2/15 at 4pm on Movie Pilot Super News.

For a gripping take on life during and after cult brainwashing, check out Hulu's The Path season 2, airing every Wednesday.

Use this information to protect yourself against the influence of destructive cults. Remember, folks: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

(Source: FBI)


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