“Oh, my God, my child’s thinking is not based in reality!”
This is a line out of one of the most compelling and harrowing books I’ve read in quite a while. What makes it all the more unsettling is that the book is nonfiction and reading it left me asking some very uncomfortable questions about human nature.
The book is Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult, by the actress Catherine Oxenberg (Dynasty). It details how Oxenberg’s daughter, India, was sucked into the NXIVM sex cult. Run by Keith Raniere, perhaps one of the most repugnant figures in the history cult crimes, the group kept an inner circle of female member as sex slaves, forced them onto starvation diets, and branded them with a hot iron.
NXIVM has been garnering a fair share of media attention over the last year or so because of the utterly bizarre and revolting details of how these women were treated, along with the celebrity connections. Aside from Catherine Oxenberg’s fight to get her daughter out of the cult, another strange twist in the NXIVM story is that Raniere’s second-in-command is alleged to have been Allison Mack, a former actress and one of the leads in the SmallvilleTV show. There were also reports of the cult desperately attempting to recruit Emma Watson into the fold, along with as many other celebrities as they could get their hands on. As Oxenberg details in the book, the actor Callum Blue had attended several NXIVM meetings (and found the group and its tenets absurd), director Mark Vicente had been an active member, as was Emiliano Salinas, son of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. NXIVM, apparently, took a page out of the Scientology playbook in its aggressive pursuit of the rich and famous.
I started reading this book soon I after I saw the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country about the cult run by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s and their plot to try and take over an Oregon county. Had the story of the Rajneeshes been made up for a fictional movie or a novel, it probably would be deemed too strange for the suspension of disbelief. Do check out the documentary (I binge-watched all of its 6 episodes over two days, it was so compelling) for all the details, but the long and short of it is that the Bhagwan’s followers carried out the first and still biggest bioterror attacks on American soil when they spread salmonella in the salad bars of a number of restaurants in the county. They were hoping to sway the county elections and get a majority of their own people elected to the board by keeping all of the anti-Rajneesh voters at home by way of the salmonella. Some 700 people were infected and sickened.
The common thread between the Rajneesh cult and NXIVM that has me so fascinated was their membership roll of wealthy, well-educated, and successful people. Wild Wild Country excerpts some of the 80s news stories on the Bhagwan’s fleet of 90 Rolls Royces. It also discusses the sprawling compound—almost literally a small city—the Rajneeshes started building in the Oregon wilderness. The price tag for all those Rolls Royces and the construction must obviously have been astronomical, but since their members were among the cream of society (a very large percentage of these people were from the U.S., but some also from Europe, the upper classes of India, and Australia), and they had to sign away all of their bank accounts and assets to the cult, there was no problem for the Bhagwan in making the purchases. Moreover, the members who had been so business-savvy in their former lives also brought their skills to the management of the cult’s financial affairs and they were quite canny in the ongoing investment of all the money. We also see the Bhagwan’s appeal making its way to Hollywood, gaining several members from the entertainment industry. In fact, the Rajneesh movement would gather quite a roster of followers from a wide spectrum of the arts, business, and politics over the years, recruiting adherents who might not necessarily commit to fully immersing themselves in the group, giving up their assets, or moving into the compound. In the 1970s, while its headquarters—or “ashram”—was in India, the actor Terence Stamp (General Zod in the Christopher Reeve Superman films) had been a member. In the early 1980s Arianna Huffington had also been a member.
The reason all of this information troubles me so much, has shaken me to the core of my libertarian being, is that I have such a hard time wrapping my mind around people who willingly give up their individuality, their personal liberties. Where the world has for so long been so full of dictatorial, autocratic regimes—whether the product of political ideologies or religious dogmas—that millions have sought to escape, had risked their lives and the lives of their families to escape, what compels people in some of the most free societies in the world to willingly put themselves under the thumb of a controlling, exploitive cult leader, some guru or what have you? Why have controlling, manipulative cults been so successful in the U.S., a country whose very Constitution was based on libertarian principles? Moreover, how come some of the wealthy, people who are given the added freedom that money can buy, would choose to join something like NXIVM or the Rajneeshes, or any number of other such controlling, coercive organizations?
Could there be something comforting in the control of the authoritarian state? There are, after all, people old enough to have lived in the former communist-block countries, others who had lived in the former U.S.S.R., who look back fondly upon the days of Stalinist dictatorships. Sure, you might have been watched all the time, told what to say, what to read, what to listen to, what to think, but at least you had someone—no matter how malevolent—watch over you. You didn’t need to worry too much about supporting yourself or managing complex finances since the state gave you everything. You got free schooling, free health care, free daycare, free housing and you might not have needed to worry about going hungry on the street...you just needed to stand in a bread line for five hours to get enough food to sustain you. But hey, at least you got food to sustain you, right? Everyone was equal you see…even if they were equally miserable. But still, not having to think too much and having everything handed out to you if you chose to be a lazy parasite who wants to live off the state has its appeal, doesn’t it?
The more I read of Captive and as I watched Wild Wild Country, the more I also thought of the conspiracy-theory culture. I had often felt that conspiratorial belief systems were a lot like religion. Conspiracy beliefs also seek to explain how unseen forces control everything in the world, how there is some hidden connection between all the random—and often unpleasant and painful—events in the world. Whereas religion attributes causality to an invisible deity, conspiracy theories replace that deity with the Masons, the Illuminati, the “international bankers,” and the New World Order. But conspiracy communities can also behave exactly like cults and all others authoritarian systems. Check out this disturbing, eye-opening account of a German woman’s time inside the world of the conspiracy culture if you don’t believe me. Like cults, like extremist, controlling ideological movements, in the conspiracy culture there is only one way or the highway. Tangible, testable, empirical proof of wild claims is not necessary—no proof is proof enough for the committed conspiracy theorist, since “They,” “Forces,” “The System,” or the “New World Order” has suppressed proof—and dissent within the movement leads to vicious browbeating, harassment, intimidation, and excommunication.
Life in both cults or the conspiracy culture is one that is ultimate not based on reality.