Still cult-y after all these years

Still cult-y after all these years

Checking in with a leader of long-running local post-cult support group

Bill Goldberg
Bill Goldberg

The cults never went away. They did, however, learn how to use the internet.

Bill and Lorna Goldberg of Englewood have been dealing with cults for more than 40 years. It started when a relative of Lorna’s got involved with one back in the 1970s.

“We had tried to get him out of the cult, and that failed,” Mr. Goldberg said. “We wanted to do something, so since we’re both clinical social workers, we started a support group.”

He also teaches sociology of religion and other courses in the sociology department at Dominican College in Orangeburg.

The support group, for people who have left a cult, still meets monthly.

“We’ve had people from religious cults, from therapy cults, from science-fiction cults — UFO-type groups — to health cults that teach you the proper way to meditate so you can get the most nutrients from food,” he said.

But while the teachings may differ, “the dynamics are all the same,” Mr. Goldberg said. What makes a group into a cult is “isolating an individual from their family, bombarding them with sensory input, giving them a pseudo-logical explanation as to why they have the answer and other people don’t. You’re told that ‘All your life you’ve been asleep — until we awakened you.’”

“Cults have always been around,” he continued.

“For the most part, they preyed on disaffected people, poor people. Middle-class America started to wake up to cults when it started being middle-class white kids who got involved.

“People since time began have looked for answers, and that makes them vulnerable. Our society has become more and more cut off from each other, and cults offer a kind of love. It’s a pseudo-love, based on agreeing with each other, sharing a common purpose, and allowing oneself to be deceived in a common way by a charlatan.

“People get hoodwinked.”

Over the decades, the nature of the cults has morphed. At first, most of the people with whom he worked had been taken in by large, well-known groups. Now, “we’re getting people from a lot of smaller groups, with maybe 10 to 20 members.” Another change is that the Goldbergs now are working with people who grew up in cults and leave as adults. They’re second-generation cultists.

How is a cult defined? For Mr. Goldberg, it’s based on the group’s impact, not on its ideology. People will call him up, concerned, generally, about a young adult child, though sometimes about an older parent.

“‘Is that a cult?’” they’ll ask.

“I say, that’s not the question to ask. The more pertinent question is that my child is involved in a group and I’m concerned about the changes I’ve seen in him or her, and my child is involved in the group in a cultic way,” he said.

That’s a deeper involvement than spending a weekend eating vegetarian meals and chanting a bit. Often it involves “drastic and sudden personality changes. They’ll give up their aspirations for themselves. Give up their friends. They might leave school and move in with the group. That person is in trouble. For that person, that group is a cult.

“There are certain red flags. For some families, it’s when they drop out of school. Or when they say they want nothing to do with their family, nothing to do with their friends. For others it’s when they empty out their bank account and give it to somebody.”

So how does he help families concerned about a loved one entering a cult?

“I try to help them to speak to the cult member in a way that’s going to be more likely to have the cult member re-examine their choice,” he said. “Don’t tell your son or your daughter what their experience is. Don’t say ‘You’re brainwashed, you’re in a cult.’ That doesn’t help.

“What does help is saying to them, ‘You’ve had different groups you’ve been involved with in the past. At some point you’ve decided it’s time to move on. What will be the ways you’ll know it’s time to move on from this group you’re involved in? How will you know if this group is no longer meeting your needs?’

“One of the earmarks of a cult is that the person who’s involved can’t even conceive of ever leaving. They just see it as the answer for everything. If that’s the answer they give, I suggest the parents encourage their child to look at the dynamics of that. They should say, ‘In a period of X number of months, you’ve given up all your ambitions in order to follow a person. Maybe we need to look at how that came about.’ I also suggest they get in touch with somebody who left the group who can give the cult member a different perspective. I’ll talk to them about ways of getting the cult member to agree to speak to the person who left. The cults will always try to indoctrinate their followers to believe that speaking to somebody who left the group is the worst thing you can possibly do. They’ll use terms like ‘they’ll pollute your mind’ and ‘it’s like eating your own vomit’ to talk with them. They try to have cult members have these disgusting thoughts when it comes to somebody who left.

“If the cult member doesn’t want to speak to somebody who left the group, then I advise the family to say, ‘Gee, that’s very upsetting to me, because you used to be so open-minded. Maybe that person has information you’re not privy to. And that’s what happens in cults — they say not to speak to anybody who left — so I see you acting in a cult-like way.”

This line of approach doesn’t promise immediate results. “The thing is to keep the lines of communication open. Say that you and I can disagree about this group but the one thing I can’t ever tolerate is if we stop talking and I want you to promise me you’ll never stop talking even if we disagree.

“In the early days of their recruitment, they’ll say, ‘Of course I’ll never stop talking with you. You’re my mommy.’ Because they don’t know what’s coming down the road, that the cult leader will tell them to cut ties with the people who will be most likely to get them to leave, which is the family. I try to help the family inoculate themselves by getting the cult member to say, ‘No, I will not stop talking to you even if we disagree.’ As long as they’re talking there’s hope.”

Isolation is the central technique in cult recruiting.

“They talk a person into isolating themselves. They say, this is a weekend or a week where you’re going to learn a lot of great things. Please don’t use your cell phones because you’ve got to experience it. You can’t explain to somebody what ice cream tastes like. You have to taste for yourself. Taste what we offer and see if it’s for you.

“When they’ve got you in a place where you have no input from the outside world, they put you in a state of heightened suggestibility and narrow consciousness. Sometimes they use sleep deprivation. It’s a brainwash process. You come out feeling you have this sense of mission.

“It’s an extreme part of the continuum of something like Birthright. You and I both believe Birthright is a wonderful thing. The kids come out of a Birthright trip to Israel — I’m not saying they’re brainwashed — with a heightened sense of being a Jew, with a feeling of kinship to Israel, which is exactly what we want our kids to have. It’s a very positive thing. These techniques can be used and made extreme by cults to completely change somebody’s ideology and personality.

“The people who run Birthright are upfront about what they’re doing. They say the reason they’re doing this is because you’re a Jewish kid and they want you to have a good sense of Judaism.

“Cults don’t do that. They use deception. They say they help mankind, and you end up fundraising so the guru can have another Rolls-Royce.

One Jewish group that has straddled the line between religion and cult is Lev Tahor. The group, founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, who since has died, has become most notorious for cloaking women and girls over 3 years old in black, head-to-toe, burqa-like coverings — and for repeated brushes with legal authorities, most recently involving the arrest of a Lev Tahor member for kidnapping two of Rabbi Helbrans’ grandchildren, after their mother — his daughter — tried to remove them from the group after she objected to the forced marriage of her 13-year-old daughter.

The group has divided the ultra-Orthodox community, with some anti-Zionist sectors taking Lev Tahor’s side in its struggles against civil authorities in Israel, Canada, and Central America.

Rabbi Helbrans was convicted in 1994 for kidnapping, after helping a bar mitzvah student hide from his mother. He served two years in prison for that felony.

“The mother had immigrated from Russia with her young son,” Mr. Goldberg said. “The son was taking bar mitzvah lessons with somebody from Lev Tahor. Suddenly, the son just disappeared. He said, ‘I’m going to study Torah, I’m not coming home.’ The mother contacted me. I met with her son. He was as starry-eyed and other-worldly as anybody from any cult I ever worked with.”

Cults have lost their high profile as a Jewish communal concern. Once, both the New York and Los Angeles Jewish federations had offices devoted to raising awareness about cults, and helping families whose members had gotten involved. “I wish they were both still around,” Mr. Goldberg said.

The Goldbergs’ support group plays an important role for its members.

“It’s really helpful for people to be with somebody else who has gone through the same experience,” he said. “When people leave a cult, they feel they have a foot in two different worlds. They have to re-examine everything that happened to them in the cult and put it into a new light. That what we do in our group.”

One big shift in Mr. Goldberg’s work over the past generation: Now, the majority of people in his support group are people who were born and raised in a cult, and left as adults.

“They never joined. Their parents joined. It’s a different situation.

“Those who were recruited and left have to regain their pre-cult personalities. Those who were born into the cult never had a pre-cult personality.

“Some of them are really severely emotionally damaged. Others — you’ll just be amazed by how strong they are. They’re strong in certain ways. They learn how to delay gratification. They tend to do well in school. They’ve learned to be single-minded in terms of following a pursuit. The price they pay in the cult is too great, but it’s a good quality. Many of them have learned skills. Knowing how to approach strangers and try to sell them something is a marketable skill. So is knowing how to cook for hundreds of people.

“Of course, I see a skewed sampling. I’m sure there are people who are really struggling who haven’t come to grips with the symptoms and never get to me.”

So how can parents inoculate children against growing up to join cults?

For Mr. Goldberg, it comes down to critical thinking.

When his now-adult son was little, they used to watch television together. And Mr. Goldberg would debunk the advertisements.

“Whenever we would watch a commercial that painted something as wonderful, I’d say, ‘It’s not that wonderful. You’re not going to be running through fields of roses because you use this laundry detergent. Tony the Tiger is not your friend. He’s a cartoon character trying to get you to eat this cereal.’ I tried to help him see that it’s good to have a critical eye.

“We’re naturally intuitive and emotional. We’re born that way. We have to be taught to be critical. When somebody tries to sell you something, I think you’ve got do develop the ability to look at it critically. When you have something you really want to believe, you should be doubly critical. There’s a lot of propaganda and we do go along with things because they strike us on an emotional level. Just be wary.

“Before we buy a computer, we go on the internet, we listen to what people have said about the computer. We look at that its qualities are. We’re very critical. But before we go away for a weekend with somebody who says they have the answers that are going to change our lives, we just say OK? You have to be critical.”

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