Cults and Addiction


IN THE 1970s, I went with my friend and co-worker Pat to a free dinner at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Hare Krishna house, because she was interested in joining. (I was curious and also hoped to help discourage her.) After seemingly endless, very active dancing, loud music and chanting—getting us parched and hungry, and maybe keeping the dozens of homeless from returning too often—sweet desserts and very sugary punch were the only offerings.

Unhealthy diets along with sleep restrictions are features of many cults, including the New York-based Nxivm. Last week Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman was the first of those involved to receive a sentence: 81 months in jail plus fines and penalties close to a million dollars.

The Vow,” now airing on HBO, tells the story of Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) with former cult members playing some of the roles. Sentencing for cult leader and convicted sex trafficker Keith Raniere—expected to be life in prison—will occur in October, and at a later date for actress Allison Mack, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges.

The word “cult” is derogatory or, as explained by Mark Vicente, one of the many “appealing, complicated Nxivm refugees” who appear in the series: “We’re not [expletive] strange monsters that made bad choices our whole life. We didn’t join a cult. Nobody joins a cult! Nobody. They join a good thing— and then they realize they were [expletive],” according to a New York Times review.

Among formal definitions of cults is “an organized group or a solitary person whose purpose is to dominate cult members by using psychological manipulation and pressure strategies,” from a 2017 study of 31 former cult members by the French Interministerial Mission for the Fight against Drugs and Addictive Behaviors.

The “vulnerability factors” of cult members have a lot in common with those suffering addictive disorders, according to the study report, notably an “inability to change despite damage and risk.”  And social impairment caused by spending so much time in service of the cult—study subjects remained in cults for an average of almost nine years—makes it difficult to leave.

Like addiction, cults have high “psychiatric comorbidity prevalence:” before joining, more than half of the subjects displayed an anxiety disorder and almost half had a mood disorder, in particular, depression —leading to the hypothesis that “commitment to and involvement with the group managed to relieve psychological suffering.”  Before joining, most felt “attachment insecurity” —often associated with addictive disorders—and soon after joining experienced a “honeymoon” of psychological relief.

More than 12% had a prior addiction that they replaced with the cult commitment—called “addiction switch,” the researchers hypothesized. Behavioral addiction “consists of a compulsion to repeatedly engage in an action until it causes negative consequences to the person’s physical, mental, social and/or financial well-being,” according to a Spanish study in 2015 that documented increasing numbers of cults worldwide.

Indoctrination techniques, including excessive meditation or chanting—dubbed “mind-stilling”—can cause a dissociative mental state and a “high” similar to that of drugs, according to the study report.  Exit counseling often involves using logic to appeal to the “thinking brain,” which practices of cult indoctrination and participation suppress.

Meditation of any kind is not for everyone, concluded Sharon Farber in Psychology Today, after attending the International Cultic Studies Association’s annual conference. Farber describes “soul murder,” coined by psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold to describe the intentional attempt to stamp out or compromise the separate identity of another person.”

Among “techniques of psychological manipulation,” explained in an Ohio Law Enforcement Primer on Cults, the explanation of “sleep deprivation and fatigue” is “disorientation and vulnerability created by prolonged mental and physical activity and withholding adequate rest and sleep.”

Also in the Primer, the description for “change of diet” is “disorientation and increased susceptibility to emotional arousal achieved by depriving the nervous system of necessary nutrients, through the use of low-protein, childlike food.”

One California cult espoused breathing as a substitute for eating, according to late Berkeley psychologist and cult expert Margaret Singer, who testified for the defense in the Patty Hearst trial. Singer estimated cults in the U.S. to number around 5,000 “small, abusive groups.”

Nxivm imposed a diet “near starvation” and limited sleep by requiring members to answer texts from the leader at all hours. What brought Nxivm under scrutiny were accusations from those who escaped that the cult involved a pyramid scheme and sex-trafficking.  A secret group of women within the organization agreed to be called “slaves,” referred to Raniere as “master” and were branded with Raniere’s initials.

Since its founding in 1998, Nxivm attracted some 18,000 people to its workshops, costing thousands of dollars apiece and marketed as helping successful people overcome fear and find self-fulfillment.  According to one lawsuit filed against the organization, however, Nxivm’s recruiters looked for “trust fund babies” and others who struggled with low self-esteem.

Clare Bronfman contributed more than $100 million of her inherited wealth to Nxivm, along with promising jobs and obtaining false visas to bring Mexican girls to cult headquarters near Albany.  Loyal even today, Bronfman has said, “Nxivm and Keith greatly changed my life for the better.”  Despite the pandemic, followers continue to organize dance parties outside the Brooklyn jail where Raniere is being held.

Hare Krishna appealed to my friend Pat, she explained, as a community that offered a sense of belonging to help her move away from her family’s strict South Boston Catholicism. After the evening though, with both of us dazed by the intense exercise and sugary repast, she thought joining Hari Krishna might be moving too far.

—Mary Carpenter

Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical issues in health and medicine.

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