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Cults Have Scored With Youth, Now They're After You

Let us prey

by Catherine Collins and Douglas Franz, Modern Maturity, June 1994, v37 n3 p22(10), (C) 1994 American Association of Retired Persons

Respect your elders; cults certainly do. They respect elders' retirement incomes, investment portfolios and paid-for homes. No longer satisfied with recruiting wide-eyed and penniless youths, the cults have shifted their focus to older people-even those who have little more to offer than their Social Security checks or small pensions. From the Branch Davidians in Waco, to the Church Universal and Triumphant nationwide, cults are obeying the cardinal rule of all confidence games: Follow the money. In exchange, they are offering everything from health to political change to the kingdom of heaven. Says Reg Alev, former executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago-based information and referral group: "As a compass points to the North Pole, cults point toward the money." And one cult deprogrammer adds, "The elderly are a cult's bread and butter."

Experts across the U.S. support those charges. So do the numbers.

As many as a million current cult members are over 50, estimates Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program of the American Family Foundation, a national organization founded to educate the public about destructive cults. In 1982 Rudin unearthed a document from a major cult that declared its intent to target older people. It urged individuals over 50 to join and "set the example for youth." It went on: "We are especially proud of our octogenarians and septuagenarians, but we have many in the golden years of the 50s and 60s who come aglow with the rapture of the ascended masters shining in their faces and the Holy Spirit in their hearts."

At least five people age 50 and over were among David Koresh's followers who perished in the fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas last year. The number would have been much higher had not many of the older individuals left in the weeks before the showdown.

In the Bible-oriented mind-control groups that embrace entire families, it's not uncommon for up to 50 percent of the membership to be over 50, according to David Clark, an exit counselor and court-certified cult expert based in the Philadelphia area.

Approximately 40 percent of all those involved in cult-like New Age groups are over 50, says Kevin Garvey, a Connecticut-based expert who specializes in helping businesses deal with the impact of cults.

There are 2,000 to 5,000 cults in the U.S. today with 3 to 5 million full-fledged members, according to University of California at Berkeley adjunct psychology professor emeritus Margaret Singer, Ph.D., who has studied cults for 25 years and treated more than 3,000 former members. Add the 10 to 20 million Americans who have had some involvement with cults at one time or another, she notes, and you have some idea of the magnitude of the cult movement.

Going for the gold

It's the accumulation of wealth that brought America's older population into the sights of Americas cults. The financial stakes can be enormous for anyone, but most especially for those who have little hope of rebuilding their life's savings once they given all they have to some group.

Peter Georgiades, a Pittsburgh attorney who has represented dozens of families in efforts to recover funds given to cults, has seen firsthand the destruction such bodies can cause seniors. "I get two to six calls a week from people who have lost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the claims are small I tell them to get a local attorney and settle for what they can get," says Georgiades, who rarely takes a case under $100,000.

"I know of a number of cases in which people have impoverished themselves," says Herbert Rosedale, a New York lawyer who has handled numerous cult cases. "It runs the gamut from people who were solicited to make six-figure donations to those who have nothing but their Social Security checks to give." Bottom line, according to Rosedale: "It's devastating--both to individuals and to their families."

One example Rosedale cites involved a very successful older businessman who took part in a seemingly innocuous management discussion group. "As it turned out," Rosedale says, "it was a front for a very aggressive cult. And before he knew it the man had turned over all of his retirement savings in exchange for a series of business courses. He was so ashamed. He couldn't tell his adult children. In fact he wouldn't under any circumstances, let us tell his children or elicit their help in recovering his funds. He was literally terrified that they would find out and he would lose their respect."

Opening the door

That a number of older people are being recruited into cults is no accident, but the result of a sophisticated strategy many of the major groups are carrying out on a nationwide scale. They may contact subjects through nursing homes, hospitals, senior centers, and even go into the homes of sick, lonely, and other extremely vulnerable individuals. There are cases in which health-care professionals have recruited older people into cults, says Barbara Martin, assistant director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio--the only rehabilitation center in the U.S. for former cult members.

Members also come from such extremely unlikely settings as stress-reduction, meditation and health-rehabilitation classes. Lawyer Rosedale knows of a case where a couple got involved by joining a local little theatergroup. "It's classic bait and switch," says Martin.

The fact is that cults prey on older people who are looking for answers, trying to come to terms with a series of major life changes--the loss of a spouse, children leaving home, long-term illness, even their own mortality. "I know of cases where cults found vulnerable widows, widowers and other grieving individuals by reading the obituary pages," says Martin.

The institutional connection

Hospitals and nursing homes can be recruiting spots for cults. These institutions seldom screen or monitor individuals who visit patients. Jews for Jesus (a multimillion-dollar fundamentalist Christian missionary
organization) may not meet all definitions of a cult, but its recruiting practices are indicative of tactics cults, or cult-like organizations, use.

According to Ellen Kamentsky, a former member of and recruiter for the group, elders are perfect targets because they are "easy to influence, often home, plentiful, and lonely."

In her book, Hawking God (Sapphire Press, 1992), Kamentsky tells how she would wander through nursing homes unchallenged. "No one ever stopped me. The authorities probably though I was someone's granddaughter; they were happy to have someone visit." She would address patients by their names, which she would get off the doors to their rooms, and ask if they'd like some company. They usually accepted. "On the first visit they did most of the talking," says Kamentsky, who admits she worked "like a skilled talk-show host," all the while just waiting to "unleash my true agenda."

Because of actions like these some nursing homes have now instituted safeguards to protect residents from such exploitation. Manor Health Care Corp., a company based in Silver Spring, Maryland, that operates more than 160 nursing homes nationwide, employs professional clergy at many of its locations. In addition to meeting the spiritual needs of residents who ask for that service, these people also function as gatekeepers to ward off approaches like the one Kamentsky describes.

Older people are at a very sensitive place in their lives, explains that Reverend Daniel Kratz, director of chaplains for Manor. "They are trying to make sense of it all, to arrive at life's meaning, to see what they have accomplished." It becomes a "religious issue. It is even a religious issue for atheists."

Ripe for the picking

Cults and cult-like organizations are also designing claims and benefits that attract older people. Says Wellspring's Martin: "For example, leaders of the Eternal Flame, now called CBJ, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, teach that people are programmed for death and that they need a 'cellular awakening' to be physically immortal. 'Cellular intercourse' with other 'immortals' is required and that involves lots of hugging, hand-holding and personal affirmation of one another in group contacts."

Arnold Markowitz, director of a New York-based cult hotline and clinic operated by the Jewish Board of Family & Children's Services, recalls the case of an older woman who became involved with "one of those self-help, Eastern meditation groups to help her high blood pressure" after she saw a flyer publicizing a free lecture on meditation and yoga and went to the group's center.

Eventually she gave the group all her money. After that "they came to her apartment and took her furnishings--rugs, antiques, artwork--to sell". Then they started to harass her. When her niece finally realized what was happening, she found the older woman malnourished and hiding out because she was terrified of running into cult members on the street.

"In the end the woman had to go into a nursing home because she had nothing left," says Markowitz. "Even her health was gone."

The following stories illustrate some other popular ploys.

Margaret Dodd became involved with Transcendental Meditation in her late 40s because it promised to help her control her dangerously high blood pressure and cholesterol. The retired teacher stayed with TM for ten years. Initially, she felt her health benefited from it--but there were other unsettling consequences.

"I became spacey, disconnected. I could see that what they were doing was very similar to Asian forms of mind control that dictate what you eat, when you sleep, and who you talk to." The financial costs to Dodd were not overwhelming because, she says, she did not have that much to begin with. But she had even less when she left. She quit her job to pursue TM studies. She sold her house and used her savings to pay tuition. "I knew others," she adds, "who went to Europe to study and came back $50,000 in debt. There were a lot of well-off people recruited into the TM movement."

Lucille Dannon (*) had a 20-year on-and-off association with a cult; she even moved her family to be near its Connecticut headquarters after her husband retired. "They started a prayer group at our church," Dannon recalls of their introduction to the group. "It was all so innocent. How could any harm come from prayer?"

But by the time the church hierarchy discovered the cult's true agenda and denounced it "the harm was done," Dannon says.

"We built a home in Connecticut and our whole life centered around that group. We were completely involved, as were our older children," she continues. "I look back on it now with horror. There's just no way to convey the irreparable harm our family suffered. We will never be the same emotionally or financially. One of our daughters has had several nervous breakdowns and has tried to kill herself. I blame all of this own what went on in the cult."

Dannon began the process of separating from the group when she learned the leaders were engaging members in sexual practices they called "divine intimacy.I was shocked out of my mind. All I could do was be thankful that I still had enough strength to pull away. Believe me, it wasn't easy. Even though we were no longer involved, five years passed before we could afford to leave Connecticut."

"I became spacey, disconnected. I could see that what they were doing was very similar to Asian forms of mind control that dictate what you eat, when you sleep, and who you talk to." The financial costs to Dodd were not overwhelming because, she says, she did not have that much to begin with. But she had even less when she left. She quit her job to pursue TM studies. She sold her house and used her savings to pay tuition. "I knew others," she adds, "who went to Europe to study and came back $50,000 in debt. There were a lot of well-off people recruited into the TM movement."

Dannon adamantly insists that anyone can fall prey to a cult. "I used to think only weak-minded and ignorant people could be taken in by these groups. I felt so sorry for the Moonies and Hare Krishna's--never thinking it was happening to me."

She says cult leaders are so cunning it's hard to imagine what lengths they'll go to in giving themselves the edge. "My group leader and his son had a picture taken with Pope Paul VI. If any group members began to doubt the leader he would point to the photograph to imply approval for the 'important work' he was doing, and send the doubter off the seek greater understanding."

Harriet Reed (*) was 65 when her brother introduced her to a Bible-study group whose leader she eventually learned used hypnosis to keep his followers in line. "My husband had just passed away," Reed says, "and these people were so attentive, cordial and supportive."

Reed's daughter adds that the manipulation and deception didn't happen overnight. "It was a long, slow, insidious process."

Reed was involved for 14 years. At one time another of her children, and a grandchild, were in the cult at the same time as she. "Can you imagine that they could get into your mind and destroy everything?" she asks. She described the feeling as being paralyzed, unable to move either mentally or physically.

"When the leader started to berate and humiliate the cult members publicly, you dreaded having to listen but you were hooked as though you were frozen in place."

She gave significant amounts of cash to the cult. "We don't even know how much," says her daughter. "Mother even sold the family home without telling us"--and moved closer to the cult's headquarters. "What really devastated us was the complete personality change. Without explanation Mother's love for everything and everyone was replaced with a glassy-eyed look and automatic devotion to the cult leader. Affection and warmth were all gone." Only after years of patience and careful contact was the family able to arrange a successful encounter between Reed and exit counselors. The entire family has tried to put those 14 years in the past, says Reed's daughter, yet "they will always be an indelible part of our lives."

Reed later began participating in a cult-awareness group. Ultimately, however, she found it impossible to keep reliving her experience and left the association. "I simply had to separate myself from the nightmare once and for all." Escaping the cults No matter where recruitment takes place, or how long involvement lasts, once a person becomes involved with a cult-like group, leaving can be extremely hard--sometimes impossible. It can be even more difficult for older individuals because time is critical to the recovery process. And time is what many older people don't have a lot of.

"When someone leaves a cult, his problems are just beginning," says Rudin of the American Family Foundation. "It can leave a very big hole in a person's life. You've cut yourself off from other people. And to recover you must rebuild those bridges. You have to rebuild your self-esteem and deal with the rage and the shame. And sometimes you have to take care of the practical things: jobs, credit, bank accounts, a place to live, health care, etc."

Caroline Marshall (*) knows all that. "My life was undergoing radical change. The Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) company I worked for was in Chapter 11 and I was losing my job. A personal relationship was breaking up and my children were all away and busy with their own lives." Marshall drifted toward Ramtha, a New Age cult based on the teachings of J.Z. Knight, a Washington state housewife who claims to be the entity through which a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit speaks. "Before I knew it, I was caught up. It's far easier than people think," she says.

Thus at the age of 58, Marshall left the east and moved to Washington to pursue her studies of Ramtha. It was a decision that cost her two years and approximately $30,000 in savings.

As Marshall's involvement increased, she became more and more concerned. The warnings of impending natural and economic disasters were extremely intense and included talk about a race of underground space aliens conspiring with the United States government and feeding on human beings.

Finally, Marshall's sons helped her make a break.

Anna Hoover (*) didn't leave her cult as willingly. For seven years she was a member of the Church Universal and Triumphant. "One day my husband asked me to come home to pick up a package," she says. When she got to the house her entire family, plus three deprogrammers, were waiting. "I was angry. I felt betrayed. It took several days of talking before I could simmer down and start to listen. Even though I was grateful to my family, it took a long time to get over that anger."

Hoover calls her cult experience "a rape--a spiritual and psychological rape. It almost destroyed me."

Martin points out another often-forgotten segment of the older population who, although not directly involved with cults, are nonetheless their victims: those who are forced to live a life of total estrangement from their children, and sometimes their grandchildren, who are cult members. "I've seen people suffer unbelievable pain because they cannot have contact with their loved ones during a time of life when that contact is practically essential," says Martin. "They feel that loss every moment of every day for the rest of their lives."

Another burning issue for former cult members is regaining some kind of spiritual orientation in their lives, according to Michael Langone, Ph.D., editor of Recovery From Cults (Norton, 1993). He did a study in which 87 percent of the respondents said they had some religious affiliation before joining a cult, while 54 percent said they had none at all after leaving the cult.

"People become gun-shy," Langone says. "If you're young you have time to work through this--but for an older person, to be alienated from religion is, I believe, a sad thing."

A long, dark process

It's virtually impossible to anticipate the physical and emotional trauma cult association can unleash. It can also lead to irreparable economic devastation, particularly for older people. And that's just the beginning of the long, dark process.

The seduction starts out caring and comfortable. Eventually, it becomes cruel and castrating. By the time a victim realizes what has happened--if he or she ever does--it's often too late. Worse, the destruction can never be fully undone.

(*) Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals and their families>

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Have you or someone you know ever experienced the following by a boyfriend, husband or intimate partner?

  • name-calling or put-downs

  • isolation from family or friends

  • withholding of money

  • actual or threatened physical harm

  • sexual assault

These are examples of domestic violence, which includes partner violence, family violence, spouse abuse, child abuse, battering, and wife beating.

This violence takes many forms, and can happen once in a while or all the time. Although each situation is different, there are common warning signs - "red flag" behaviors - to look out for, including those behaviors listed above (see Section 4 for a list). Knowing these signs is an important step in preventing and stopping violence.

In this booklet, we will focus on domestic violence as partner violence, defined as violent or controlling behavior by a person toward a partner, usually a wife, girlfriend, or lover. Although the partner is the primary target, violence is often directed toward children as well, and sometimes toward family members, friends, and even bystanders in attempts to control their partner.

Approximately 95 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women. However, violence also happens in both gay and lesbian relationships. and in a small number of cases, by women against men. 4. Warning List This list identifies a series of behaviors typically demonstrated by batterers and abusive people. All of these forms of abuse, psychological, economic, and physical - come from the batterer's desire for power and control. The list can help you recognize if you or someone you know is in a violent relationship. check off those behaviors that apply to the relationship. The more checks on the page, the more dangerous the situation may be. Emotional and Economic Attacks *Destructive Criticism/Verbal Abuse: Name-calling; mocking; accusing; blaming; yelling; swearing; making humiliating remarks or gestures. *Pressure Tactics: Rushing you to make decisions through "guilt-tripping" and other forms of intimidation; sulking; threatening to withhold money; manipulating the children; telling you what to do. *Abusing Authority: Always claiming to be right (insisting statements are "the truth"); telling you what to do; making big decisions; using "logic." *Disrespect: Interrupting; changing topics; not listening or responding; twisting your words; putting you down in front of other people; saying bad things about your friends and family. *Abusing Trust: Lying; withholding information; cheating on you; being overly jealous. *Breaking Promises: Not following through on agreements; not taking a fair share of responsibility; refusing to help with child care or housework. *Emotional Withholding: Not expressing feelings; not giving support, attention, or compliments; not respecting feelings, rights, or opinions. *Minimizing, Denying & Blaming: Making Light of behavior and not taking your concerns about it seriously; saying the abuse didn't happen; shifting responsibility for abusive behavior; saying you caused it. *Economic Control: Interfering with your work or not letting you work; refusing to give you or taking your money; taking your car keys or otherwise preventing you from using the car; threatening to report you to welfare or other social service agencies. * Self-Destructive Behavior: Abusing drugs or alcohol; threatening suicide or other forms of self-harm; deliberately saying or doing things that will have negative consequences (e.g., telling off the boss).. * Isolation: Preventing or making it difficult for you to see friends or relatives; monitoring phone calls; telling you where you can and cannot go.. * Harassment: Making uninvited visits or calls; following you; checking up on you; embarrassing you in public; refusing to leave when asked.. Acts of Violence * Intimidation: Making angry or threatening gestures; use of physical size to intimidate; standing in doorway during arguments; out shouting you; driving recklessly.. * Destruction: Destroying your possessions (e.g., furniture); punching walls; throwing and/or breaking things.. * Threats: Making and/or carrying out threats to hurt you or others.. * Sexual Violence: Degrading treatment based on your sex or sexual orientation; using force or coercion to obtain sex or perform sexual acts.. * Physical Violence: Being violent to you, your children, household pets or others; Slapping; punching; grabbing; kicking; choking; pushing; biting; burning; stabbing; shoots; etc.. * Weapons: Use of weapons, keeping weapons around which frighten you; threatening or attempting to kill you or those you love.. from "Domestic Violence: The Facts" - A Handbook to STOP violence (courtesy of Peace At Home (formerly Battered Women Fighting Back), Boston)

Cults come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Categories of cults that are recruiting successfully today include:

Eastern meditation: characterized by belief in God-consciousness, becoming one with God. The leader usually distorts and Eastern-based philosophy or religion. Members sometimes learn to disregard worldly possessions and may take on an ascetic lifestyle. Techniques used: meditation, repeated mantras, altered states of consciousness, trance states.

Religious: marked by belief in salvation, afterlife, sometimes combined with an apocalyptic view. The leader reinterprets the Scriptures and often claims to be a prophet if not the messiah. Often the group is strict, sometimes using physical punishments such as paddling and birching, especially on children. Members are encouraged to spend a great deal of time proselytizing. (Note: included here are Bible-based neo-Christian and other religious cults, many considered syncretic since they combine beliefs and practices). Techniques used: speaking in tongues, chanting, praying, isolation, lengthy study sessions, many hours spent evangelizing, "struggle" (or criticism) and confession sessions.

Political, racist, terrorist: fueled by belief in changing society, revolution, overthrowing the "enemy" or getting rid of evil forces. The leader professes to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Often the group is armed and meets in secret with coded language, handshakes, and other ritualized practices. Members consider themselves an elite cadre ready to go to battle. Techniques used: paramilitary training, reporting on one another, guilt, fear, struggle sessions, instilled paranoia, long hours of indoctrination. -- Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Lalich and Tobias, Hunter House, 1993.