Book Review - Child of the Cult

ICSA Today, 4,(1), 2013, 13-15

Book Review - Child of the Cult

Nori Muster

Review by Joe Szimhart

In this short but important book, Nori Muster presents recovery stories from five adults who grew up from childhood in controversial organizations: Unification Church; Transcendental Meditation; Hare Krishna, or International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON); Aesthetic Realism; and Children of God. Each of these groups has carried the exclusive cult label as the result of eccentric, even delusional claims made by the founders, and techniques of devotion that damaged disciples. The five adults present a range of reactions to the cult experience, all with unique challenges in their recovery. The reader should take away the ideas that cults are not all equal, and that second-generation former cult members have different recovery needs from those persons who join and defect as adults.

Muster’s challenge is to draw attention to an almost insurmountable problem these questions reflect: How do we stop harmful and dangerous cult behavior? How do we prevent folks from joining a deceptive group or dangerous cult? What exactly is a cult? In Muster’s view, the response to this last question seems to pinpoint a problem that includes a syndrome with no established name. We use terms such as brainwashed, hypnotized, mind-controlled, conned, duped, deceived, manipulated, influenced, and charmed or enchanted. We add phrases like thought reform, behavioral control, bounded choice, left-handed path, gas lighting, Stockholm syndrome, battered-wife syndrome, authoritarian rule, charismatic relationship, and under a spell. To name is to limit the problem, which includes a host of social interactions under religious, secular, martial, political, therapeutic, transcendental, or financial guises. Yet, professionals have made attempts to define the condition. Muster parses harmful cults to mean “authoritarian networks that form around dangerous people who portray themselves as spiritual leaders.”[1]

The first case she discusses is about Flore A., PhD, who was 2 years old when her parents “joined” the Unification Church, or Moonies. Flore is today an anthropologist working in Norway—a good sign that there is life after growing up Moonie. Muster briefs us with a group profile, as she does with every case, thus offering a context for the cult member’s experience. Early in her childhood, Flore rebelled against her context, describing fellow Moonies as “a group of gibbering morons.” As a teenager, she rejected Rev. Moon’s rants about the fall of man being the result of a “bungled-up sex act” by Adam and Eve. She was separated from her fundraising parents for years at a time and did not meet her father until she was 5. Her parents described neglect of children as a “sacrifice for the greater good.” Flora was expelled from the UC Camp Sunrise at 13 and the following year moved in with her then former member father. She soon came to reject the Divine Principle that is a crudely concocted Biblical history Rev. Moon used over time to prove that he must be the Messiah. As an adult, Flore maintains a “positive attitude” in grappling with her childhood. Muster’s conclusion about this first case is portentous: People who grew up in the Unification Church give us fair warning of what it would be like to live in a world controlled by a totalitarian leader.

In case two, Gina C. grew up with parents who joined the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement in 1965. Mahesh Prasad Varma (1917–2008), or Maharishi to devotees, founded TM in 1958. TM was perhaps the first major redistribution of Hindu religion within a business model—the selling of secret mantras or magic words that ostensibly can release supernatural powers in the devotee and cure the world of all its ills. TM caught on internationally at the height of the hippie boom in the late 1960s, most famously when the Beatles rock band and singer-songwriter Donovan became TMers, at least for a time. Gina and her brother were raised as “children of the age of enlightenment,” although under Maharishi’s chauvinist system women and children were not valued as such. Raising children was a distraction to TM adults who had more important work to do, such as meditating to save the world. Nevertheless, as a child, Gina could parrot the TM teachings, thus impressing incredulous adults with such “lofty truths coming from the mouths of children.” But she and her brother would rebel, hanging out with non-TM children; and that led to tension with her mother.

Gina’s parents enrolled her, at age 15 in 1974, in Maharishi International University (MIU), a TM school that moved from Santa Barbara to Fairfield, Iowa around that time. MIU offered liberal arts and business courses built around Maharishi’s bizarre, pseudoscientific “unified field” theory. Gina refused to move on to TM’s advanced teachings because she noted that adults in that program “no longer laughed” and did not seem to enjoy life. By age 30, with several children, and after a second divorce from a TM man, Gina defected altogether from TM. She was tired of feeling blamed for her husband’s and the world’s problems because she stopped meditating enough. She came to see the cult dynamics in TM that enabled “negligence, abuse, and violence,” and useless, often expensive magical cures in the name of enlightenment. Muster writes that Gina deals with her “survivor’s guilt” by reaching out to educate the public through Internet sites and her Web site, She continues to help former TM members as she pursues her professional career as a midwife.

The third case describes Ananda, born in 1975 and raised in the Hare Krishna movement, or ISKCON. So her parents could practice bhakti yoga and fundraise, Ananda was placed in a gurukula, or HK school, in Dallas. Among all the gurukulas, the Dallas location most exposed children to neglect and physical and sexual abuse. Ananda was a plaintiff in Children of ISKCON vs. ISKCON. The record shows that, beginning in 1971, ISKCON perpetrated “systemic sexual, physical, and emotional abuse on as many as eight hundred children over nineteen years” in boarding schools in India, Dallas, and in American rural communities. The abuse spread because, “like the Catholic Church, ISKCON transferred abusers to new territories to avoid detection” (Muster, 2012).

Ananda tells us that her parents, like most ISKCON parents, were from the typical middle-class “boomer” generation that “trusted the schools to raise their children” and believed in the organization. “Those whose children were abused now suffer chronic, debilitating guilt.” Ananda’s story reiterates the pattern of most destructive cults that form around inept leaders who often assign subleadership roles to incapable devotees who, like lousy fathers and mothers, resort to abusive authoritarian methods of control. This lack of proper governance was endemic within the Hare Krishna movement and stemmed from its grandiose, opportunistic founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, a.k.a. Prabhupada. After severe criticism from outsiders, with criminal behaviors exposed and movements of reform from within, the Hare Krishna ended the “mandatory boarding school requirement” in 1986 (Muster, 2012). The ISKCON schools in India remain in question in this regard. Ananda was only 6 years old in 1981 when a Hare Krishna man “forced his penis” into her mouth. The elders told the children that they were “evil” because they tempted the adults to perform sexual acts. The vulnerable victims were forced to believe in an utterly “moronic” version of karma—abuse was deserved or it would not have happened. All of this sordid behavior was wrapped around total devotion to the idol/statue of Lord Krishna and the fundamentalist teachings of founder Prabhupada. Ananda was victimized by both male and female pedophiles. As an adult, Ananda’s confused gender-identity issues have made recovery understandably difficult.

In the next case/chapter, “Loving an Abusive Reality: Life as a Student of Aesthetic Realism,” Muster introduces us to Ann S., who was born into Aesthetic Realism (AR) in 1944. She grew up in the “exciting and vibrant” art scene in New York City. The notorious Greenwich Village poet Eli Siegel (1902–1978) formed AR in the 1940s. Siegel already had a cult following of devotees attracted to his poetry readings and idiosyncratic philosophy that was described posthumously in his book Self and World. One quirky teaching by the oddly charismatic Siegel was that homosexuals could follow AR and be “straight.” This controversial teaching was recently suppressed on the AR Web site, however. Although Siegel did not found a new religion, his movement qualified as a cult for a variety of reasons: transcendent beliefs, devotion to a charismatic leader, and experiencing a deep fear of losing the “most important” thing in the world if one doubted Siegel or defected. Fallen members were vilified or “verbally abused” at weekly meetings among the leaders.

Siegel and group treated Ann like “genetic royalty.” She recalls that Siegel could be “charming and funny,” but he had a “dark side” that she attributed to his “emotional neediness.” After Siegel died, things got worse. The newer leaders tampered with people’s marriages and ran AR “at their whim.” Ann’s mother, a repressed artist because of her devotion to AR, received harsh treatment. Ann was approximately fifty years old and a former member before she realized, as a result of working with a therapist trained in cult-recovery work, how cultish AR was. Ann discovered that she had much in common with other second-generation adult survivors of cult life after she heard their stories at a major conference.

Muster included AR in this collection because it does not fit the popular public conception of a cult. Nevertheless, most of the traits in cults that constrict growth and violate identity existed in Ann’s experience within AR.

The last cult experience has the subtitle “Escaping the Children of God.” Jane Doe was born into a neo-Christian group first known as the Children of God, later The Family. In recent years, the group has no name at all, claiming to have disbanded, perhaps to avoid ongoing lawsuits. Founded by David Brandt Berg, or “Mo” for Moses as his cult name, the group first flourished during the rise of the sixties’ hippie culture and recruited most of its early members from that milieu with a ministry called Teens for Christ. Berg was sexually abused as a child and was an admitted alcoholic. Berg’s damaged psyche promoted as holy acts aberrant sexual conduct among adults and with children. COG women engaged in “flirty fishing,” or prostitution masked as Christian proselytizing. Berg imagined the Christian heaven as a free-love paradise with material pleasures. He forbade abortion or contraception, so COG women often had “Jesus babies” by multiple partners, and COG children might never identify their biological fathers. This scenario is not to ignore a kind of evangelical approach to religion present in the group—COG members knew their scriptures, if only within a constricted doctrine. Berg also promoted visions he thought were from God—he imagined that the passing of comet Kohoutek heralded apocalyptic times in 1974, for example. Similar ideas of reference are common among people with schizophrenia as well as among false prophets.

Jane D. spent much of her childhood in COG communes in South America. She was taught that her body was not her own, to withhold it was “selfish.” She recalls a life of “forced labor, indoctrination, fundraising, and sexual abuse.” Jane tired of Berg’s “hallucinations” and finally escaped the cult as a teenager, making her way to the United States.

Muster also covers the tragic story of Ricky Rodriguez, who was a product of a flirty fishing episode by Maria David, David Berg’s partner. Berg accepted Ricky and they called him “the prince.” They produced the 762-page Davidito Book, meant as a parenting manual, with instructions for how to sexualize children. Ricky, or Davidito, was to lead the cult during the end times. As a young adult and deeply troubled ex-member, Rodriguez shot himself in 2005, leaving a sensational video tape of his suicide after he killed one of his former COG caregivers. His murder-suicide drove home the dark side of Berg’s sick religious cult.

The author ends with the chapter “Deescalating the Cult Dynamic in Society”; but she quickly qualifies her topic with the phrase “dangerous cult,” noting that using simply cult in the pejorative sense is taboo in academic circles. She cites a 1936 study by Anna Freud, who first recognized this syndrome as “identification with the aggressor” (Muster, 2012). She notes that almost eighty years later, the American Psychiatric Association has not coined an effective name or category in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for harmful cult behavior or resulting symptoms. Thus there is no established treatment specific to cult harm that insurance companies will pay for. As a result, ex-cult members have few reliable resources for therapy outside of a tiny network of self-educated mental health professionals.

Muster adds useful appendixes that define child abuse, provide international standards for child protection, and include resources for cult awareness and cult child protection.

This book is a good overview of the problem, whatever you want to call it, and a noteworthy plea for society to pay more attention—we ignore dangerous cult activity at our own peril and that of our children.

[1] From the author’s introductory comments under the subheading “Definition of the Term ‘Dangerous Cult.’”