This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Cults will always be associated with the big names. Your David Koreshes, your Jim Joneses, your Charlie Mansons—the guys you’ll have seen hogging half the Netflix documentary section like they’re the only megalomanic sociopaths to ever grace a fortified compound. But there are plenty of other, more humble, groups out there still suckering people in and fleecing them for all they’re worth.
Ian Haworth, an ex-cult member, has been running the UK-based Cult Information Centre since 1987. There, he and his team provide information, guidance, and assistance to those who want to leave a cult, those who have already left one, and to concerned friends and families. I caught up with him recently to get an insight into how a modern-day cult operates.
VICE: Hi, Ian. How did you end up joining a cult yourself?
Ian Haworth: I was doing some shopping one day [in Toronto] and met a lady who asked if I could help her with a survey. I agreed. She then told me I’d probably be interested in joining a community group she represented, saying “Isn’t it time you considered giving something back to the community instead of taking from it all the time like most people do?” The meeting consisted of a talk, followed by a coffee break, followed by a film. When the break was called, people started to come into the room with all kinds of food. I’d paid $1.50 to attend, so I thought I’d get my money’s worth.
I then decided to go for a cigarette, when someone rushed over and said, “Oh, we didn’t know you smoked. You can smoke out here, but have you ever thought about quitting?” About a month before this my doctor had told me I’d probably die by the time I was 40 if I didn’t quit smoking, so she’d hit my area of interest. The course spanned four days and they guaranteed success. At the end of the course I’d given them all the money I had, decided to dedicate my life to them, and handed in my resignation at work.
That was quick. How did you eventually end up leaving?
I was a completely different person, but of course I didn’t know that. Friends knew that, my roommate knew that. People were scared of me, people felt sorry for me, people had a variety of emotions but didn’t know what to do. People at work were stunned that I’d handed in my notice because I was doing well. When I was working my final month, the group [PSI Mind Development Institution—now non-existent] were exposed in the media. I hadn’t yet been programmed against the media, so I was open to media input. It reactivated my critical mind and I managed to leave. I then went through 11 months of pretty severe withdrawal.
Do you believe intelligent, educated people are more likely to be recruited than people in turmoil or who may be considered unstable?
This idea of troubled people is the eternal myth. People want to imagine this is the case because they don’t want to consider themselves as “vulnerable.” I don’t use the word vulnerable very often, but I’d argue that we’re all vulnerable to the techniques used by these groups. The late Dr. John G Clark, who I quote a lot, said the safest people are the mentally ill. The easiest people to recruit are ones with alert, questioning minds who want to debate issues with other people. You take a strong-willed, strong-minded person and put them into a cult environment and the techniques used will break a person down very, very quickly. The smarter, the healthier the mind, the quicker and easier you are to control. It’s just one of these tragic realities.
What have you found to be the primary motives for setting up and recruiting people into cults?
The common denominators would be people and money. Some may just enjoy the power they have over a mass of people; others may well be wanting, from the word go, to acquire financial benefits and amass great wealth; others may have other ambitions of taking over the world. Then there are some who may well actually believe they are God, or whatever. I think those are the ones who are quite often mentally ill, so there’s quite a mix of leaders and they may well have slightly different motivations. But, again, the common denominators are people and money.