Book: The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief
Author: Chris Mikul
Type of Book: Non-fiction, cults, religion, true crime
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is very subjective, but as an atheist I find all religious beliefs a bit odd. Extreme cults are therefore all the more odd.
Availability: I read the Metro Books edition, but this book has been released by Amazon for Kindle, and that edition is a better bet:
Comments: This book was in my to-be-discussed pile back in 2011 (yeah, I am still catching up) when Chris Mikul sent me copies of his excellent ‘zine, Biblio Curiosa. We began a friendly correspondence and he gave me some interesting information about this book. Evidently his publisher was concerned that some of the content in the book could lead to a lawsuit and demanded the book be radically edited. Mikul sent me the excised chapters but I am limiting myself to the content in the actual book because it seems unfair to discuss material that my readers won’t be able to read for themselves.
But even though he had to cut out some pretty interesting discussions, The Cult Files remains a very absorbing book. Though I am reasonably well-read on the subject of cults, I found information new to me in this cult anthology. There are some of the usual suspects, like the Branch Davidians and Jonestown, but every other chapter had something completely new to me. That Mikul discussed one of my “favorite” cults, the Ant Hill Kids, led by the repellent and vile Roch Thériault, just sealed the deal for me. Thériault didn’t get much play in the USA and is one of the most fascinating cult leaders, far more interesting than Charles Manson and, in my opinion, at least as toxic as David Koresh. So that was definitely a point in Mikul’s favor.
To prevent this from becoming an extremely long discussion, I’ll just discuss the chapters in this book I found the most interesting or that were new to me when I read the book.
Before I begin, I need to state that not all of the cults discussed in this book fit my criteria of what makes a cult, but it must also be said that I use a pretty strict measure that requires a single charismatic leader, alienation from family and friends, no financial control for followers, increasingly strict punishments for continually changing “sin” metrics, different rules for those in favor with the leader, an inability for followers to question anything, an inability to leave with impunity and more. Mikul doesn’t define his metric with such exacting specificity, though he does give an idea of what a cult may be and how what defines a toxic cult can vary from person to person and from sect to sect. However, his metric comes pretty close to that espoused by Robert Lifton, who stated three different categories to consider when discussing cults: a charismatic leader who positions himself or herself to become the focus of worship, employing brainwashing or thought control methods, and exploitation of the rank and file cult members by the upper echelons of the cult. Even if the cults Mikul discusses in this book may not meet my stringent standards, they meet Lifton’s, who is far more of an expert.
The book begins by discussing the Thuggee in India, a group of traveling confidence killers who preyed on other travelers. They became associated with the garrote, their most common method of killing. I knew a bit about the Thuggee just from osmosis because of my varied reading habits, but I had not known they were dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Kali, the goddess of death and destruction (among other things). The Thuggee were more or less suppressed and destroyed by the British Raj. Before reading this I had considered the Thuggee to be murderous equivalents of the Irish Travelers, con men and women who just upped the ante in scams via murder. I suspect part of it is because I always think of cults in terms of charismatic leaders, and the Thuggee were not organized in this manner, or at least they weren’t when they were in their heyday. But there are typical cult elements that one commonly sees in cults that allow the Thuggee to qualify as a cult, like an us-versus-them mentality, justifying all behaviors, even that which is illegal, as ordained by elevated or outsider status. I think it was an interesting choice to include the Thuggee in this book.
The next chapter deals with snake handlers, specifically The Church of God With Signs Following. I think this is another inclusion that surprised me, because as a Southerner, and a Texan specifically, weird charismatic churches are not that uncommon to me. On a trip to Babyhead/Llano last summer, we passed a couple of tiny clapboard churches wherein one can easily imagine rampant glossolalia as parishioners were overcome by the Holy Spirit. Snake handing isn’t a “thing” in these parts, but evangelical, fringe Christian churches are thick on the ground. We have a lot of tolerance for weird religion here, the FDLS debacle in West Texas notwithstanding (and Waco was the Feds’ fault). So perhaps I am inured to strange religion. I kind of think the Snake Handlers weren’t too malign either, but really, if anyone persuades other people that the Bible says they need to handle deadly snakes as a sign of faith or chosen status, we can assume that followers are substituting the logic of a charismatic leader for their own and therefore consider this a malign cult.
At any rate, George Hensley, like so many fundamentalists before him, focused on a strange Biblical passage. Mark 16:17-18 states:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Yep. Gotta handle rattlesnakes if one truly believes. Also, it occurs to me that it is not that uncommon for us to find baby rattlers around Chez Oddbooks during the droughts. Stuff scares me, don’t get me wrong, but one can negotiate a poisonous serpent if one keeps one’s head clear, so maybe that’s another reason why snake handlers are so, “Eh, whatever,” to me. But to the religious zealot who is eager to prove his or her piety, the toxicity of this cult, or at least its influence, is clear. Will it surprise anyone that Hensley died from snake bites? It really shouldn’t.
Mankind United was wholly new to me. Atheist that I am, this seemed like such an astonishing con that it almost beggars belief. In 1934 Arthur Lowber Bell published pseudonymously a book called Mankind United. The book made all kinds of startling assertions.
The book revealed the existence of The International Institute of Universal Research and Administration, which was founded on Christmas Day, 1875, by 60 high-minded men and women. With no hope of personal gain, these individuals, known as ‘the Sponsors,’ pledged their combined fortunes of $60,000 to the organization. Its aim was to introduce the Golden Rule as formulated by Christ – ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – into all human relationships. Its enemies were the ‘Hidden Rulers,’ a cabal of fabulously wealthy, morally bankrupt men who controlled ‘the political parties, governments and major utilities and industries of every civilized nation on earth,’ and had deliberately engineered all the wars, revolutions and economic depressions of the last few centuries.
Wow. So the Sponsors had to work in secret because the Hidden Rulers posed a threat to their desire for global good will. But even though the Hidden Rulers had forced them into hiding, the Sponsors had developed an extensive program to advance their agenda of world-wide kindness. And it was a pretty intensive and complete plan for utopia, hampered by ridiculous details, like insisting that Bell could walk through walls and that he had seven doubles salted around the USA. Believe it or not, this silly little cult had some legs there for a while, but like all cult leaders, Bell began to demand too much from his followers – specifically too much money – and when it became clear the USA would get drawn into WWII, the cult began to fall apart. Then the FBI had a look into the cult, decided they were involved in seditious behaviors, and that was more or less the end of it all. This cult is particularly interesting because even though Bell was the leader, this was not a cult of personality. No one even knew he was the creator of this movement until the FBI dragged him into court. He later revived the cult though that too more or less faded away. Mikul sums up this largely benevolent cult thusly:
…the fact remains that Arthur Bell was one of the twentieth century’s greatest conmen; never before have so many human beings been moved to perform such good works by one man’s naked greed.
Next in the stream of cults I had not heard of is Synanon. Chuck Dederich found Alcoholics Anonymous a bit lacking for his tastes so he founded Synanon in the 1950s to help addicts of all types. He believed that addiction “was the result of behavior patterns that could be changed” and recommended living in communes and intense therapy reminiscent of shorter est sessions wherein people yelled at each other and brought up difficult and upsetting topics. This process was called The Game and it was nasty and exhausting. Though there were bumps in the road, Synanon got some laudation and validation but eventually Dederich began to behave like a cult leader. People were no longer able to “graduate” from Synanon, meaning no one was ever cured of their addiction. The Game, which used to last for hours, became The Trip, which lasted for three days. Abuse, screaming and no sleep for members and there was no way to go but down.
By 1974 Synanon had moved so far away from basic drug rehabilitation that the government was considering denying their tax exempt status. The group also descended into New Age type religious activities and many detractors said it was more or less becoming a religious group. So of course Dederich declared the group a church. Dederich’s wife kept many of his worst impulses in check, but after she died and he had room to air out his id, things took a left turn down a crooked road. Members shaved their heads to promote gender equality, pregnant members were forced to have abortions, men were forced to get vasectomies, couples were broken up when Dederich forced them all to change partners, extreme corporal punishment became the order of the day and then came the lawsuits from former members. When Dederich placed a rattlesnake into the mailbox of one of the lawyers representing former members, it was pretty much over. Dederich too is remembered in a certain conflicting light:
Former members continue to work for companies founded by Synanon, while others have gone into social work. They are divided about the legacy of Dederich, who died aged 83 in 1997. They continue to believe in Synanon’s early ideas, but many are angry at Dederick’s betrayal. It seems he is as confounding a character to him as to anyone else. One described him as ‘the most evil man I have ever met but also the man with the greatest heart for the needy I have ever met.’
This is a common refrain one hears about some cult leaders. Many began with the best of intentions. Jim Jones was a force for racial equality and a community leader before he descended into megalomania and sadism. It’s upsetting how often, in the beginning, it really is very hard to tell a killer from a savior.
I am often surprised that many Americans don’t know about the Ant Hill Kids because it was so very horrible, so very sickening and so very titillating to American tastes in terms of just the depth of human depravity. I won’t go into the group in detail because if you don’t know about this cult already, you should buy this book and read about them. The gist of the cult was this: Roch Thériault, a French Canadian priapic who initially was a sort of hippie, commune-loving, fabulist whose tall tales about his life playing with bears were only believed by the brainwashed and sometimes daft people who made up his followers. He became a fringe Seventh Day Adventist, moved his followers to a commune in the middle of nowhere and began a reign of terror that has to be read to be believed.
He castrated male followers, killed children he did not sire, stole every man’s wife, cut off limbs of followers, had impromptu surgery (later wearing a rib bone from a woman who died under his “surgical knife” around his neck like a pendant), raped children and starved everyone until the cult was finally dismantled. The end came after a woman whose arm he had cut off snuck away to get medical help when his half-assed attempts to cauterize the wound failed. Hospital workers alerted the authorities. Why did Thériault cut off her arm? Because she had a toothache. He yanked out eight of her teeth and part of her jawbone before he began to carve the flesh off her arm. In comparison, he made Charles Manson seem positively sane. This was one of those cases that just baffled me. Thériault had charm but one has to be pretty damned charming to kill a child and still expect and receive devotion from the child’s mother. More than any other cult, this one shows how people can slowly begin to consider the violent and incomprehensible to be the norm when they are cut off from others and permit themselves to believe in religious saviors. Thériault was murdered by his cell mate in 2011 and when that happened the sum total of evil in the world diminished, if only for a day.
Jeffrey Lundgren and the Kirkland Cult were similar to the Ant Hill Kids in terms of simply not getting why it is otherwise sane people will permit themselves to be recruited into violent, nasty cults led by men who in photographs seem to have all the charisma of Randy Quaid. Jeffrey Lundgren, a thief and probable coprophiliac, declared himself a prophet in the Mormon Church and launched an Armageddon cult. A handful of believers left when he set a date for the end of the world and it didn’t happen, but plenty stuck around when Lundgren told them that they needed a blood atonement in order to bring about the end of the world. Evidently the sin in their camp needed to be removed so he had his followers kill a family of five and bury them in a lime-filled pit in a barn. Then he took his followers into the woods where they all lived in misery as Lundgren demanded the women of the camp dance and strip for him. He found religious reasons to sleep with all the other followers’ wives but eventually the privations from living as savages in the woods in the middle of the Utah winter grew thin and Lundgren decided he needed to go to California to recruit better followers, who presumably would have better looking wives. In his absence the cult fell apart, he was ratted out, and he was arrested. He was sentenced to death and died in 2006 by lethal injection. With the exception of the slain Avery family and the children raised in this cult, everyone involved should have gone to jail forever, if only for being so damned stupid for following a loser like Lundgren in the first place.
That’s a big problem for me, wondering how people were willing to follow such ridiculous, grotesque human beings. Long time readers here may remember my discussion of The Source Family, a benign cult from California that was most active in the 60s and 70s. While I still don’t get it, I can at least see the appeal with The Source Family. Father Yod/Yahowa, even when older, had a visible charisma, as he was both physically appealing and handsome while crossing over into archetypal father/magus images. Many who look at him now think he looks like Dumbledore, a kindly wizard, an embodiment of wisdom and restrained but extreme power. There were some mild warning signs with the cult, but ultimately Father Yod was a magnetic center for a group of people who might have been willing to exchange the whole of his intellect for their own, but ultimately that was not his goal and for the most part he respected the moral and physical limits of his followers.
Moreover, Father Yod was not on a power trip like most cult leaders. He was deeply emotionally affected when he made bad decisions, like when he urged his followers move to to Hawaii because he was afraid CPS might take the group’s children (staph infections ran through the group due to over-crowded communal living but there were never any signs of active neglect or abuse). The Hawaii trip was miserable for all involved and he suffered alongside his followers. I may think The Source loopy or odd, but I can see the appeal of being in a group of people on a New Age/ Buddhist/ Christian trip while still being involved in free love and hippie culture. Like Charlie from Metropolitan, I don’t want to live on a farm with a bunch of other people, but I also am not repelled by a group of young, attractive people who centered around a kindly, attractive older man as they enacted their sexual wills and lived a fun, fringe life. Mikul’s book is filled with horrible people who seemed horrible from the very start and it asks so many questions as to how it is that people are often so willing to follow to their financial ruin/imprisonment/deaths men who, from miles away, appear to be the worst possible choice in the way of saviors. I have no answer, even as I read the explanations of experts. My mind just doesn’t grasp that sort of blind faith. I suspect that is why I keep reading books like this – I hope some day I’ll understand.
This book also tackles the Branch Davidians, Rajneeshism, the Manson family, the Church of the Lamb of God (a violent Mormon offshoot), MOVE, Heaven’s Gate, Nation of Yahweh, the Order of the Solar Temple and Aum Shinrikyo. Each chapter has enough to give the reader a very good overview of the cult, as well as share the unbelievable and often times salacious details of malignant cult leaders. Mikul writes in a manner I envy – he’s concise, he turns a phrase well and he is able to discuss his topics without out all the philosophizing I engage in. This book is very entertaining and quite informative. I highly recommend it.