Meet the New Boss

And here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice

Bob Dylan, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”

HBO recently ran Season Two of its series The Vow. It’s about a group, a so-called “cult,” whose leader and three of his top lieutenants were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Watching the series was both fascinating and repelling at the same time, as well-done an effort an anything in this genre can be. I found myself wanting to watch, then not wanting to watch any more, ultimately finding the wherewithal to finish the series. When it ended, I found myself trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, to decipher the indecipherable, to make sense of what to an outsider appears to make no sense. Along with that came an extraordinary sense of déjà vu.

This group was called NXIVM (largely pronounced “Nexium”). The leader of this group (my word, since I will forego any use of the term “cult” as overly value laden) was a man who began the work seemingly with good intent. He developed a devoted group of followers, many of whom in the upper echelons were women. He led the group forward via a series of teachings that served as inspiration towards the goal of making the world a better place. At the same time, both he and the group developed a darker side. This side metastasized until the bad seemingly overcame the good intent the group had originally possessed. The leader and the members went on as long as they did, ultimately imploding under the weight of dissension, dissolution, paranoia, pressure from the outside world and leading to its final end.

Does this sound at all familiar?

Here was another group of people, deeply motivated to do good in the world, willing to enlist in that effort, and exquisitely mirroring the experience of members of Peoples Temple. There was an amazing series of comparisons involved in how both of these marginalized groups came to operate. And so I began to list, however emotionally and unscientifically, the steps involved in how good people, ultimately led astray, had not yet fully paid the price of going through all these things. Twice.

Let me be clear. The leaders are not the same person, nor do I intend to say that they are. Their followers are not the same people either. Group goals are different. I do not judge any of those things. However, the processes involved, and the events that transpired within the groups, appear eerily similar.

  1. The leader is charismatic enough to increasingly pull the group out of society into a grouping of its own.
  2. The group then comes to live within a more tightly controlled environment. The group becomes self-referential, working with, speaking to, learning from and associating only with each other.
  3. An Us versus Them mentality emerges. There is an enemy out there, defined largely as anyone who is not us.
  4. All faith is placed on the leader. He becomes virtually omnipotent.
  5. As the leader is now seen as infallible nothing is questioned. The space for problematic behaviors within the group to exist now emerges with any opposition being squelched.
  6. A feeling emerges that the group is changing the world, and this is work that only this particular group can do.
  7. The members of the group live in increasing isolation, both from the outside world and at times from each other within the group. The group increasingly distances itself from society, reality, and even from family.
  8. Only the group can know things, others just can’t understand. Anything from outside is suspect, and dangerous.
  9. The leader utilizes guilt. He is carrying the burden for the whole group at great cost. Members are reminded of this often as if they are told they must bear-off the onus of what is happening to the leader. The leader must be cared for.
  10. Members come to believe that only their leader can help and guide them.
  11. Women become the second level leadership of the group under the male leader.
  12. The second level leadership comes to have sex with the leader. A power dynamic emerges in the group reflecting this.
  13. The leader plays psychological mind games that are apparent to some and at the same time, very much not apparent to others. In psychological terms, the group is split.
  14. The group increasingly cannot stand the light of truth or dissent, and further censors input or information from the outside.
  15. The group comes to have an inflated, seeming fantastical understanding of their own importance and impact.
  16. A Messianic/disciple dynamic emerges. The group virtually becomes the chosen people and by inference, the leader a sort-of messiah.
  17. The leader breaks people down, physically, emotionally and psychologically. He then builds them back up depending on him for what was once their own sense of well-being.
  18. There is an enormous sense of loyalty required to the leader. At the same time, anything not rising to that standard becomes identified as betrayal. Departure from the group is the worst sin.
  19. The group is asked to monitor its own members behaviors. Paranoia increases.
  20. Sleep deprivation is used as a tool, as is constant work. People are given no time to think.
  21. Fabulist thought emerges. The Government, the media the CIA or other outside forces are coming after the group.
  22. Communication is squelched. Secrecy becomes paramount. Within the group, few people know everything. Truth suffers.
  23. When the leader implodes, the group implodes.
  24. After the fall, a cadre of true believers remains, unable to acknowledge that anything negative might have taken place within the group.
  25. As spectators, we arre left to look at the debris of what took place after it has all happened. Again.

I fully believe the adage that “No one chooses to join a cult.” These groups are altruistic and impassioned, offering members something they cannot finding anywhere else. It is the slippery slope of events taking place sequentially once the group has taken shape and starts to create – or respond to – external stimuli that leads to the problem. Maybe it’s something endemic in the forming of intentional groups such as Nexium or Peoples Temple that contains within it a killing germ we cannot see. Maybe the toxicity is dormant within the individuals involved, and is something that living within the group process only activates. I don’t know. But the path to the negative outcomes is writ large, as in the above, and is clear. Not having the ability to identify and somehow contain these processes continues to assure that good and well-intentioned people will once again end up on the same dire path, continually led by the next exciting, new leader, again and again.

Same as the old boss. Maybe even worse.

(David Ballard is a Licensed Clinical Social worker living in Sacramento, California. He attended California State University in Northridge for his BA and UCLA for his masters degree. His interest in Peoples Temple began in 1978 with the news of the tragedy in Guyana. The Temple has piqued his interest ever since, perhaps never fully understandable but with enormous lessons to be learned from it. His other article on the site is One Must Consider Context.)