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Should we be so tolerant of cults?

By Brian Holden - posted Tuesday, 13 September 2011

She knew 42 years ago at the age of 20, that she had a special calling - to lock herself away from the modern world and leave all that she knew behind. She swore herself to the three vows of Chastity, Poverty and Obedience and stepped inside a closed order never to live in the outside world again.

Janny has physically hugged her brothers once in 42 years and her sister on only but a couple of occasions. All visits to the convent occur through bars. She has chosen a world that many of us cannot comprehend - a world totally devoted to God in which she prays for the salvation of us all.

The above is an extract from a feature ABC Radio ran on the August 31, 2008. Any psychologist listening to the program would have come to the conclusion that Janny was in the grip of a cult. The loss to the distraught family of their daughter was almost like a death in the family. The family would curse the Enclosed Order of the Carmelites.

The defenders of Janny's position would say that she was happy. But what demons does Janny's mind have to contend with to maintain her blissful state? Psychologists would say the demons are as inescapable as are the hormones which command all of us to share the same space with earthly beings one loves. The defenders would say that Janny can renounce her vows at any time and rejoin society. Neuroscientists would say that her brain has been too hardwired to be able to make the decision. Janny's mind has been hijacked.


When I was aged 12, I partook in a retreat conducted by a monastery. It lasted more than one day (but I cannot remember for how long). I was not allowed to talk in that time except to ask one of the supervisors a question about the grounds layout and program. I was to contemplate my relationship to God and read The Lives of the Saints.

I remember it to have been a very pleasant experience - a type of transcendence. I can understand why more of this experience could be seductive to the type of personality I had. In retrospect, I can now understand why the whole sixth class at my Catholic school was there. The objective was to get a spiritual grip on as many of us as possible before 'sins of the flesh' had a chance to get its devilish grip.

And yet our government formally respects cults. John Howard when prime minister (although refusing to meet the Dalai Lama) met with leaders of the Exclusive Brethren which then-opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, labeled as a cult and a wrecker of families. It seems that the Exclusive Brethren school is still being subsidised with public money.

Fringe religions can certainly wreck families. My local smash repair operator thought he had a good marriage. I remember his wife as an energetic partner and pleasant face to the business. And then, suddenly, the bustling business was on the market and the house he was building put on hold. The man claimed that "out of the blue" his wife announced that she was off to join some religious group in another state. After a year's separation he has to part with half of all he owns. After many years of being his own boss, he is now an employee. And, how much of the wife's share has the cult got its hands on?

Of course, the smash repairer's wife would not have been captured by the cult if she did not feel that there was a void in her life. Many married men have wives struggling to cope with the empty nest syndrome - and many of these women have a nagging feeling of being 'unfulfilled'. With that feeling, one is very vulnerable to being drawn to a beacon on the top of a hill.

One normally does not take an interest in the cult menace until one meets the victims. It was disturbing for me to hear many years ago this lovely couple say to me around a camp fire: "We have lost her." What was lost was a once well-balanced teenager who began to accuse her parents of being sinners. What a heart-wrenching experience it must be for a parent to open every draw in the house to see a slip of paper with some quotation from the Bible staring back.


A cult can be formed around a living person (generally of an Eastern extraction) with extraordinary powers. Meditation can be a healthy practice, but if embraced too enthusiastically, may lead to a falling into a trap - because there is always 'the next level of enlightenment to progress to'.

The USA seems (not unusually) to have special problems. With the long-departed Jesus as the figure-head, absolute mind-control of his subjects by the earth-bound leader resulted in the Jonestown mass suicide and the Waco siege in the USA.

The most aggressive of the cult leaders use a technique universal for bullies to control the emotions of his captives. His modus operandi is the application of almost continual humiliation - but which is relieved on occasions by praise. The victim rationalises that the humiliation was for a just reason and craves the praise. The victim gradually becomes incapable of looking objectively at the situation she is in.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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