When “Help” Turns Into a Cult

At the end of this post, please click the link to a New York Times article about a reported FBI investigation of a self-help group called Nxivm.  The name is pronounced “Nexium,” and apparently has no relation to the acid reflux drug.

We should be aware that no charges have been brought against Nxivm or its leader.  However, the allegations are alarming, and for the time being any person seeking help with emotional or spiritual issues should probably look elsewhere for treatment.

Some treatment programs maintain ethical standards and provide the right support so clients can resume their lives.  Others are looking for permanent followers, and that’s a problem.

Personally, I’ve never been in a cult, but I’ve been exposed to them.  When I moved to San Francisco in 1982, I lived near a commune operated by the Unification Church (Moonies).  The church’s members would approach young people in public places, often very close to my building.  I had repeated contact with them, and walked away whenever a pair of those people went into their trademark Barnacle Mode (they usually moved in pairs when they were outdoors).  Some of them followed me for about half a block before giving up.

Unification Church recruiters used a sugar-sweet/aggressive tactic.  They wanted to make strangers feel guilty for brushing them off, and I’m not proud of the fact that my conscience bothered me whenever I was rude to them.  However, in retrospect I can say rudeness saved my ass repeatedly.

In dozens of encounters with Moonies, I never heard any of them identify themselves as such.  Most of them were able to speak to me long enough to invite me to their commune, though, and I recognized the address.  There was no question who they were.  A few times, the mention of “**** Bush Street” was the tip-off.  That was when I realized they weren’t lost visitors asking for directions.

I felt foolish because I was fair with those odd young people and didn’t usually walk away until I was sure they were cult recruiters (Maybe they’re tourists who need help, I often thought at first).  Then I felt guilty for protecting myself.  Maybe the reason I was approached so often was that my lack of self-confidence was too visible.  Usually, I walked with my head down, which must have made me attractive to anyone looking for a fragile person.  Maybe that was why some of them continued to follow me when I was trying to shake them off.

That wasn’t my first contact with a cult.  In 1976, the faculty of my high school ill-advisedly invited Synanon members to speak about addiction to our Health & Hygiene class.  This was a couple of years before two of Synanon’s puppets put a rattlesnake in someone’s mailbox, so I guess the faculty didn’t take the Health & Hygiene speakers’ weirdness too seriously.  They should have.

When two men from Synanon arrived at the campus, the first impression I got was that one of them was in charge, and the other was supposed to stay quiet.  The entire lecture went that way.

I don’t recall any articulate comments on substance abuse.  The overbearing guy just bragged about the way power was asserted on Synanon members.  He talked about shaving the heads of people who didn’t cooperate.  This unhinged lecturer got progressively more agitated as he spoke, and I wondered if he would try to keep the class sitting there all day.  The way I remember it, the quiet guy was seated behind, not next to, the man who ranted.

Fortunately, the study in grandiose abuse wrapped up at the end of the class period, so students were able to leave the room on schedule.  The school allowed smoking, and I remember kids lighting up cigarettes outside.  Most of us were pretty shaken, but one girl who had been in that class defended Synanon because her mother had received successful treatment for her addiction from them.

I was too non-assertive to complain to the school principal about the hateful speaker who had verbally run amok in class.  At the time, my reasoning was that no one from that group would be invited to the school anytime in the future, after what we’d heard that morning.  I convinced myself there was no reason to speak up because the situation was so obvious.  Even a three year-old could have seen what was going on.

I was wrong.  I wasn’t in the Health & Hygiene class the following year, but one afternoon I saw the instructor welcoming two people with the signature haircuts.  They were there to speak to her class.  They weren’t the same people who had been there before, but it was obvious Synanon wasn’t on the proverbial No Fly List after their earlier on-campus disaster.

The people who ran my high school weren’t highly erudite or experienced.  Given the faculty’s level of sophistication, I’m guessing they wanted to convince us that rehab was hell, on the assumption that scaring us the right way would prevent us from ever abusing drugs.

If so, they were full of it.  The hateful man with the weird haircut — whose companion didn’t speak — likely made it clear to teenagers that they should avoid rehab at all costs.  That isn’t the same as abstaining from drug use.

In 1978, Synanon lost many of its apologists, after a couple of the group’s followers put a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a personal injury lawyer who had secured a court judgment against the group.  The lawyer represented someone who had been brutalized in the course of her “treatment.”  He survived the snake bite.

By that time, everything I heard about Synanon infuriated me.  They could brag about cruelty, and impress gullible people.  I wondered how many assholes were ready to give them a break even after the rattlesnake thing.

Synanon had defenders outside of their immediate community because those defenders knew some people who had actually benefited from the program.  My classmate whose mother got a handle on her addiction was ready to fight for the cult’s reputation even after she witnessed that guy’s meltdown in our school.

When an organized group — or just one influential person — works with vulnerable people, we should consider everything that happens in those interactions (all of the stuff we know about, anyway).  If we suspect problems, we have an obligation to be skeptical.

Power brings out the best in some people and the worst in others, and a handful of people who start out with the right intentions are corrupted later.  At one time, some acquaintances thought Synanon’s founder, Charles Dederich, Sr., was a really nice guy.  By the late 1970s, an audiotape of him making death threats became public.  Was he a lifelong monster, or just someone who couldn’t handle power?  We’ll never know.

Here’s the New York Times article by Barry Meier and Paulina Williams:



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