What is a Cult? Why People Join and Why They Stay
The two girls for whom Peggy Riley's debut novel, "Amity & Sorrow," is named, are escapees from their father's polygamous cult. Their mother, Amaranth, was the first of his 50 wives. She's convinced that her husband is on the hunt for the three of them, and now they must start over in a world the girls have never known. Why do people join cults in the first place? As Riley tells Bookish, many famous cult leaders, including Sun Myung Moon and Reverend Jim Jones, gave their followers a sense of belonging that they'd lost in the wake of the '60s. Read on for her take on why people join extremist sects, why they stay and how they leave.
My 1970s California childhood was filled with violent faiths and death cults, formed by charismatic leaders who hoped to build utopia--or its evil twin. In creating the faith at the heart of my first novel, "Amity & Sorrow," I was less interested in its leader and more in its followers. Growing up watching the parole hearings of Charles Manson and his Family, as well as the bodies of Jonestown believers strewn across the jungle floor, I have always wondered--why do people join cults, what makes them stay and why are so few able to leave?
The hangover of the Summer of Love left many a hippie lost and alone, estranged from post-war families who didn't understand this rite of passage. Gurus emerged from everywhere: Fathers Yod and Berg, Sun Myung Moon, Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, Reverend Jim Jones. Communities sprang up throughout California, making homes and families for people with no one, called to change the world or to find a new world through the liberating of political ideals, drugs, meditation, violence, philosophy. With their minds opened in the full throes of ecstatic and free love, anything seemed possible--until the leaders began to turn.
Charismatic leaders draw believers in with words of honey and visions of apocalypse, making them feel special through the limiting and rewarding of access, cutting ties between followers and their families, challenging their behaviors and beliefs to erode their identities, the sense of self. The leader seems appointed and anointed by God. Once he is duly revered, he proclaims himself the next Messiah and then it is the beginning of the end. Nearly 1,000 died at Jonestown; only a handful escaped before the "revolutionary suicide" of Jones' poison punch. Why so few--was it because their passports had been removed? Or was it because their families were split? Seventy-six died in the fiery finale to the siege of Waco. During the standoff, David Koresh sent 21 children and two-dozen adults out, all of them followers prepared for the end of the world, ready to die in a battle with "Babylon," the evil government. The freed adults continue to mourn the loss of their prophet. Traumatized children watched their family burn on television, some of them young wives of Koresh's who recounted sexual encounters that left them feeling "scared" and "privileged."
Through an oily combination of influence and control, charm and fear, leaders hold their cults together, apart from the world. Followers are taught to deny their instincts--all doubts come from Satan--and to forget their lives before. They are told there is no other world--that this is the end--and they find they would rather die with the ones they love than face a life, alone. But in "Amity & Sorrow," the first wife of 50 makes a different choice. When their church catches fire, as the Branch Davidians' did, she takes her children and runs them from their faith and their father. That is where the book begins.
There are a number of fascinating books about cults, both fiction and nonfiction: On Charles Manson, you can't beat the original: "Helter Skelter," by Manson's prosecuting attorney, Vincent Bugliosi. "My Life in Orange" recounts Tim Guest's motherless ashram childhood under Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. "The Rapture of Canaan," by Sheri Reynolds: an Oprah book from 1997, about a teenaged mother in a strict Christian faith--The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind--who may have given birth to a messiah.
Peggy Riley won a Highly Commended place in the 2011 Bridport Prize competition. Her short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio and has been published in New Short Stories 4, Mslexia magazine and on the Ether Books app. Her plays have been commissioned and produced off–West End, regionally and on tour. She has been a festival producer, bookseller and writer-in-residence at a young offender's prison. Originally from Los Angeles, Riley now lives on the North Kent coast in Britain.