month ago, I was 100% sure I could never fall prey to a charismatic cult leader. I just didn’t think I had it in me. You wouldn’t guess it from a glance, but there’s a rebellious thread running through my genes that expresses itself in a million subtle ways. It’s the reason that, 20 years after reading that scene in A Wrinkle in Time where the little boy is punished for not bouncing his ball in sync with the government’s pace-setter, I still purposely walk out of step with whatever canned music is lulling the rest of the shoppers into a state of rhythmic grocery meditation. So the idea of getting to the point where I could give over my agency to the cult du juor seemed unthinkable.
CBC’s podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM follows a former high-ranking member of NXIVM — a cult formed inside of a multi-level marketing ploy to sell self-help courses — as she recounts her break from the group’s hold over her life. The story is one that you can’t help but dissect with anyone who’ll listen, turning over every metaphorical stone until you’ve proclaimed yourself an uncertified subject matter expert. But while there’s a lot to unpack in the podcast, what struck me most about the interviewee was how self-assured and well-spoken she was. She didn’t comport herself as I imagined a cult member would, by seeming vulnerable, perhaps, or untethered to reality, or submissive. In fact, all of the members (both former and current) that were interviewed appeared to be natural leaders, confident and well-adjusted. Perhaps it’s because this group attracts an atypical crowd of inductees. Or perhaps it’s because anyone could be a victim, given the right conditions. Maybe those traits said to deeply embody the standard cult victim’s personality — seeking validation, unstable identity, gullibility, etc — aren’t necessarily the only markers for potential prey.
Similar to many corporate entities, cult leaders regularly co-opt and misuse therapeutic terms like mindfulness, feminism and protest for personal gain. In NXIVM’s case, “empowerment” was their pop psychology hook, which is a solid lead on their part, because nearly everyone wants some. Empowerment, though, is just the bait. What makes a cult (or really any brand or ideology) truly successful is how deeply it can embed a “we-they philosophy” into its followers, as Dr. John G. Clark, Jr. puts it in a piece on the psychology of cults in The New York Times. The tie that really binds, he bluntly states, is “we have the truth, and you do not.”
Clark’s philosophy plays off of the idea of the hivemind — a natural phenomenon that exists in humans on a variety of different levels. On the micro and most literal level, it’s our brain’s methodology for decision-making. It is through majority consensus that our buzzing collection of neurons compels us to re-watch The X-Files for the thousandth time instead of doing laundry. If you’re like me, then you may also have an almost as equally powerful group of neurons screaming over the din that you can do both at once. The mom guilt cluster. Hivemind also exists on the macro level, as a variety of notions both scientific (the swarm intelligence of bees being used to influence the design of AI) and mystical (the egregore — a psychic mass that influences groups of people). But it’s hivemind as groupthink that is the idea that resonates most with corporations and cult leaders alike. Groupthink is what pushes us to abandon our better judgment for the sake of maintaining the peace and acceptance of the majority.
We can all point to moments in our lives where we’ve compromised our reason in order to align ourselves with an entity we felt represented us. It is the psychological equivalent of “on Wednesdays, we wear pink.” And the reason I sulked in silent protest, blasting Rancid and tearfully gluing my hair into a mohawk, when my parents wouldn’t let me attend Warped Tour during my seventh-grade year. A lone punk separated from her tribe by, you guessed it, The Man.
While belonging is a cornerstone of the human existence, hivemind is the spectrum that operates on its surface. Cults, brand loyalty, archetypes of all kinds play off of the notion of that desire to varying degrees. They provide individuals with the feeling of being seen or understood, and then offer something on which to center your purpose or heal what you feel (or have been told) is ailing you, whether that be lip gloss, a sorority, or pledging your allegiance to a self-proclaimed demi-god.
Unfortunately, an oft recurring counterpart to community is common enemy. The desire one may feel to align with their community often comes with the urge to protect said community’s core values. However, this effect of ideological difference often manifests as animus generally directed toward flesh-and-blood “outsiders,” which leads to a clever misapplication of Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more you fight against the outside world to defend your group, the deeper you’ll sink into the tenets (reasonable or not) of your ideological sandpit.
Needing to be a part of something larger than ourselves, something that we feel reflects or connects us to our identity and those who share it, is inherent in the human experience. Mix in the frequent vulnerability we all hold and perhaps that’s all that’s needed to brew susceptibility to indoctrination. If the crack in our agency lay in something as simple as our thirst for belonging, then maybe the dark stars just haven’t aligned yet for the cult-less.
So yeah, if I were visited by the ghost of beliefs past, I’d have to say that upon further reflection, I am only 95% sure I would never join a cult. My plate’s full enough as is between all the 12-step skin care fanfic I’m compelled to write and planning my yearly pilgrimage to Glossier HQ. They say one’s visage glows brighter with every step you take down Lafayette street.
Illustrations by Alice Meteignier.