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Episode 3.2: “The Cultic Culture Club” (Part 2)

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

Aboji Mansei!"

(Ten Thousand Years to Father!)

(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 3.2, Chapter 1)

Ticket to Heaven (1981):

1. (0:40:48--0:42:25) Song & “Would you like to buy some flowers?”

2. (0:44:24--0:44:57) “Bonkers For God!”

3. (0:02:52--0:03:37) “Stay Awake! Bring in the Money! Smash Out Satan!”

You’ve just heard excerpts from Ticket to Heaven, a 1981 Canadian film starring Nick Mancuso, Saul Rubinek, and Kim Cattrall. The film tells the story of David, a young man who is taken-in and conditioned (some might say “brainwashed”) by a seemingly loving, but deeply deceptive and manipulative cult. Part history and part fiction, Ticket To Heaven was inspired by the true story of Benji Carroll, a young Montreal man who, after a difficult break-up, headed to California in the mid-Seventies—as many young people did at that time—looking for good times and personal enlightenment. Benji Carroll’s experience, including his family’s half-baked but successful attempt to have him kidnapped and “deprogrammed”, was also told in Moonwebs, a 1980 non-fiction exposé of the Unification Church—widely known as the “Moonies”—by Montreal journalist Josh Freed, who was a personal friend of Carroll’s. [5]

Benji Carroll’s cultish experience is unique, but not so different from that of many other ex-members of the Boonville Creative Commune Project—a Unification Church indoctrination camp that aggressively recruited young adults and used them to raise funds for the Unification Church under false pretexts. Indeed, this story varies only in degrees from that of thousands of victims of this and other high-control groups that pepper our post-modern religious landscape.

Freed spent a number of weeks in California, including several days in the Boonville commune, trying to gain access to his friends Benji Carroll and Mike Kropveld--who had followed Benji into the group. Mike would soon leave of his own accord, but Benji proved much more deeply committed. Some of the methods used by the commune’s leaders during this time, and which Freed described in detail, included the following:

(1) targeting vulnerable people in a personal crisis, especially those disenchanted with the failures of the Sixties counterculture;

(2) smothering prospective new members with love and attention;

(3) having them attend long, convoluted, and ambiguous lectures that withheld the more controversial elements of the faith—including its leader’s identity;

(4) forcing members to follow an intensive daily schedule for everything, including sleep, exercise, and chanting rituals;

(5) perpetual surveillance of members by higher-ranked ones;

(6) separating new recruits from each other;

(7) coached peer-pressure;

(8) long unpaid work hours;

(9) enforced self-deprivation of sleep, food, leisure, and alone time;

(10) limiting members’ contacts with outsiders and scripting their communications with unbelieving family members;

(11) obliging members to make public personal confessions of their deviant behaviours and inner thoughts, and then exploiting these confessions to undermine their self-trust and ability to make autonomous rational decisions, until the member, like a young child, became fully dependent on their leaders’ approval.

Freed described his experience in the Boonville commune as “a strange mix of boot camp, kindergarten, and psychotherapy sessions” (p.63) designed to produce “the total annihilation of self-worth”.(p.191) His book ends with a warning about the many insidious ways that dehumanizing totalitarian movements like these emerge: “From this perspective,” he writes, “one can see there may be many conceivable doors to Boonville: from the religious and from the secular; from the left and from the right of the political spectrum; from broad movements that sweep across a nation to singular, all-consuming love affairs in which one person’s identity is swallowed up entirely by the other’s.” (p.210)

The Church of Unification was founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, a mild-mannered Korean preacher who proclaimed himself the second coming of Jesus Christ. It soon spread to Japan, the United States and much of the Western world during the Sixties and Seventies. Its rapid growth can be attributed to several factors: First, its tenacious Cold-War political activism—which was capitalist, conservative, and rabidly anti-communist; second, its unethical lobbying and lawsuits directed at high-profile politicians and social influencers; thirdly, its aggressive business ventures, including its ownership of large media outlets, restaurant chains, real-estate ventures and weapons manufacturing, all of which gave it a podium to surreptitiously promote its ideology and interests; fourthy, its financial support of right wing paramilitary movements, earning it the support of many conservative politicians; and, most especially, its intensive and deceptive recruitment campaigns, like the one Benji Carroll, Mike Kropveld, and Josh Freed came up against.

The Unification Church currently claims to have between one and two million members worldwide, but critics argue they have far fewer. [3] [6] The organization may or may not now be described as a cult depending on whom you ask, and which definition of 'cult' is employed. On one hand, the Unification Church does share many core values with established Christian denominations, but it is hard to classify it as a typical Christian movement. Indeed, many of its core teachings are considered heretical by all other Christian traditions. Chief among these is Moon’s claim of being the second Christ, sent to complete the failed mission of the first Christ to purify humanity through arranged marriages and the creation of a sin-free bloodline. Moon, who enjoyed a billionaire’s lifestyle, was also convicted of tax fraud in the Eighties and shown to have engaged in illegal and amoral tactics to enrich himself off the back of his followers and curry favors from politicians—including several American presidents. For these reasons, as well as the many sex, drug, and financial scandals that rocked the Moon family over the years, the Church has been forced, at least in part, to reform its recruitment and business tactics, if not its theology.

The Unification Church has lately begun to splinter, particularly as a result of Sun Myung Moon’s death in 2012 and the internecine conflicts dividing the Moon family—some of whose members broke off to create their own rival groups, such as Shawn Moon’s Sanctuary Church, whose members sport AR-15 assault rifles as symbols of their pastor’s future world domination.

So… Are the so-called “Moonies” a cult? Psychotherapist and cult expert Daniel Shaw defines a cult as:

"…a group dedicated to the mission of the leader, who is always a traumatizing narcissist. This kind of narcissist claims to be pursuing a mission to help others empower themselves, either spiritually or financially, and to change the world in some uplifting or purifying way. Followers are introduced to practices and rituals meant to strengthen and purify them, which actually are designed to test their devotion to the leader and to train them to depend on and submit to the leader. Followers are exploited in every way to fulfill the cult leader’s actual mission, which is always to bolster and maintain his or her delusion of omnipotence." [9]

This definition appears to apply to both the Creative Commune Project that recruited Benji Carroll, and the Unification movement as a whole. We’ll delve deeper into the characteristics of cult leaders in subsequent programs. Let us for now focus on what makes people join and remain in such a group.

Shaw identifies “Six Universal Aspects of Cults” which, again, appear to describe the Unification movement as we’ve discussed it above. [9] These are:

(1) Purification of “ego”, which involves the dehumanization of the member through work, rituals, punishment, and shaming;

(2) Excessive demands for perfection leading members to sacrifice freedom, time, and personal desires for the sake of the cause;

(3) Incessant urgency, or, in other words, the exclusive and pressing need to obey and follow unquestionable rules or otherwise risk losing eternal redemption;

(4) Violation of boundaries as a norm, leaving the believer with little personal space and few rights if it does not serve the leader’s desires;

(5) Eradication of inner deviance, or, if you prefer, the elimination of autonomous thought and freewill through surveillance and harsh discipline, and finally

(6) Absolute devotion to the leader which requires the follower to protect the leader’s status, integrity, and lifestyle at all cost, even against the follower’s conscience, dignity, and self-worth. This usually begins to occur when the believer has ceased to perceive a clear separation between his or her own well-being and that of the leader.

So then who would possibly want to belong to such a group? The answer, I think, requires us to consider two things: the first, which we’ll explore in more depth over the next episodes, is that charismatic cult leaders are often masters of manipulation and at winning the admiration of their followers much in the way people “fall in love” through a deep and overwhelming infatuation that overrides their rational ability to view the person they love critically and to perceive their failings and dishonesty. The second, which we will be discussing in today’s interview, is the psychological state of the prospective member, who almost always begins his or her relationship with the group in a position of vulnerability.

Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland identify multiple reasons for which someone might get involved with a cult, which vary widely from person to person. For some it is a search for greater structure and certainty. For others it is because such groups offer a novel explanation for the problem of suffering or the cause of their existential anxieties. Still, others seek a community of friends, a surrogate family, or comfort for a broken relationship. Some others are drawn-in by material needs, such as free food and health care, cheap living accommodations, or support in fighting an addiction. Some are won over by the promise of secret knowledge and power. Whatever the reason, prospective followers are almost always in need of reassurance, the sort that can be easily exploited by a confident leader—what Pelland and Kropveld call a “guru”—with a simple and totalizing program for personal and global transformation. [17] Some relationships between followers and gurus, they point out, can be benign and mutually rewarding. They become cultish when the believer is manipulated into a relationship of dependence that places the guru’s interests above everyone else’s. [12]

It’s easy for those on the outside to think of cult members as irrational, gullible, or weak-minded, but experts say this is a misleading stereotype. Many people who follow cult leaders are educated, and otherwise skeptical persons who don’t see themselves or their leaders as crackpots, but as revolutionary thinkers swimming against the tide of false ideologies and corrupt public opinion. It is the rest of the world who is brainwashed, they often maintain, and it is their guru who holds the keys to well-being and truth.

If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology class, you may have heard of one of the most thought-provoking studies of how people submit to authority. It was conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1963, at a time when Americans were far more trusting of white men in lab coats. Milgram’s experiment involved having his subjects take part in what they believed was a study of how punishment affects memory. The experiment involved having the subject (or “teacher”) administer progressively stronger electrical shocks to a “learner” every time this learner remembered a series of word pairs inaccurately. (The learner, who was hidden from view, was in fact an actor collaborating with the psychologist, and only pretending to receive these shocks). Despite hearing the learner protest, scream, and even beg for the experiment to stop, the vast majority of this experiment’s hundreds of subjects—male and female, young and old—continued to deliver these shocks, even when they believed the learner’s health was in danger, all because a qualified expert whom they respected was telling them that if they relented, they would jeopardize the whole experiment and its highly important results. [10]

Now replace the experiment’s alleged purpose with a promise that humanity will be saved from certain doom if only the subject remains faithful to the guru’s totalizing project, and replace the white lab coat with a robe, a long beard, a shaved head, some shiny medals, a white crown, or whatever symbol the guru imbued with the aura of power and truth, and you have yourself the beginnings of a coercive cult. Milgram concluded likewise: “We are all fragile creatures entwined in a cobweb of social constraints,” he wrote, “the key to the behavior of subjects […] lies not in pent-up anger or aggression but in the nature of their relationship to authority. They have given themselves to the authority; they see themselves as instruments for the execution of his wishes; once so defined, they are unable to break free.” [10]

Today we’ll be talking about some of these themes with cult expert Mike Kropveld. So stay with us, because if you don’t, you may be jeopardizing all of the efforts we put into this podcast, and possibly losing your soul for eternity. You wouldn’t want to have that on your conscience, would you?

I didn’t think so.

Michel J. Gagné, 2021.

Readings and videos related to Episode 3.2:

1. Boze Herrington: “The Seven Signs that You’re in a Cult,” The Atlantic, June 18,2014.

2. Jaclyn Skurie, prod.: “Holy Sh*t, We’re in a Cult!”, The, September 26, 2016.

3. Mariah Blake: “The Fall of the House of Moon,” The New Republic, November 12, 2013.

4. Ticket to Heaven (United Artists, 1981). Directed by Ralph Thomas. Starring David Mancuso, Saul Rubinek, Meg Foster, and Kim Cattrall.

5. Josh Freed: Moonwebs: Journey Into the Mind of a Cult, Dorset Publishing, 1980. (Out of Print). Full Text PDF.

6. Barbara Bradley Hagerty: “Unification Church Woos a Second Generation,” NPR: All Things Considered, February 17, 2010.

7. Tess Owen: “We Spent a Wild Weekend with the Gun-Worshipping Moonie Church That's Trying to Go MAGA,” Vice News, October 31, 2019. (See also “Guns For God: The Church of the AR-15,” Vice: The Believers, S1, E1).

8. Daniel Shaw, LCSW (personal website).

9. Daniel Shaw: “Traumatic Narcissism: The Psychology of Cult Leaders,” Public lecture delivered at the ICSA 2015 Santa Fe Conference. (link to the book)

10. Carole Wade and Carol Tavris: Psychology, 2nd edition, Harper & Row, 1990.

11. International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) organization website.

12. Mike Kropveld & Marie-Andrée Pelland: “Gurus and Followers,” News From Info-Cult, No. 25, June 2013.

13. Info-Cult/Info-Secte organization website.

14. Simon Lewson: “Life after Doomsday: Tracking cult activity from a Montreal storage locker,” The Walrus, October 20, 2015.

15. Gregory Pike: “Mike Kropveld is a Cult Sensei,” Vice, May 1, 2012.

17. Kropveld and Pelland: The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function, Info-Cult/Info-Secte, 2006.

18. Kropveld and Pelland: “Examples of problematic group functioning” (description of Roch “Moïse” Thériault's Ant Hill Kids, The Order of the Solar Temple, and Heaven’s Gate cults), The Cult Phenomenon, Chapter 4. Op. Cit.

19. Carl Abbott: “Rajneeshees,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, March 17, 2018.

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