40 years after Jonestown massacre: Why survivor Jackie Speier says we have to be vigilant about religious groups that operate in secret
ABC 7 News
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, the largest murder-suicide in American history. It happened to American citizens living in a religious cult overseas, in the South American country of Guyana in 1978. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., was there in 1978 as a young aide to a congressman who was investigating suspicious activity at the compound, called Jonestown. But they were ambushed and shot while trying to leave. Speier says the lesson we need to learn, is be vigilant about religions that operate in secrecy.
“There are so many thoughts that run through your head when you’re dying,” she said. “And I was 28 years old. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was dying.”
She survived, in spite of being shot five times by followers of the Reverend Jim Jones. He led a religious cult called The Peoples Temple. Speier was an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan. He was on a fact-finding mission to investigate complaints of sexual and physical abuse at the overseas compound in Guyana. He brought journalists to cover the story.
Speier said supporters of Jim Jones came and shot the Congressman.
“They shot Don Harris, the NBC reporter, the cameraman, the sound man, Greg Robinson, the Examiner photographer and me,” she said.
Speier managed to drag her badly mangled body with one arm, behind the plane’s wheel well. She and the others were on the airstrip for nearly 22 hours. Survivors were finally moved into a tent, still waiting for medical attention, which came much, much later.
She remembered this kindness at the time, “All I had was the goodness of some of the reporters and the producer from NBC who came and brought me rum, Guyanese rum, and I took swig of Guyanese rum to get through that night.”
The ambush killed Ryan and four others, including three journalists.
Shortly after the attack, Jim Jones sent more than 900 of his followers at the Jonestown compound to their death. He ordered them to drink a cyanide-laced beverage. Speier says the children and infants were injected with cyanide.
Speier remains angry about major lapses from those days.
“What troubles me most as I look back at it, is that we had a State Department that failed us, we had local law enforcement that failed us, we had local government that failed us because there were so many telltale signs of illegal activity and that alone should have prompted scrutiny,” she said.
The massacre in Guyana affected Speier’s life in many ways. She’s living with two bullets and shrapnel in her body. And she lives with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
Jennings: “Do you ever have moments of PTSD from those dark days?”
Speier: “I do whenever there’s a 21 gun salute, or when fireworks go off or a particularly loud sound of some sort, car backfiring.”
Speier says Jonestown taught her that we have to be suspicious of groups that operate in secrecy, while claiming the first amendment right of freedom of religion. They need to be reported if they commit crimes.
“I’m a Roman Catholic and I look at the Catholic Church and how they allowed these priests who were pedophiles to just be recirculated into another parish when they had an obligation to go to law enforcement and didn’t,” she said.
Speier has become fearless after surviving her near-death experience. She said: “Had Jonestown not happened, I don’t know that I ever would have run for public office.”
Her mentor, Congressman Ryan, would be so proud of Speier’s journey. She points out, “That’s the real power of being in elective office is you can shine a spotlight on issues that deserve attention. You can bring people together to find solutions to problems and it’s really incredibly fulfilling.”
You can hear Rep. Speier’s full interview on Cheryl’s Facebook page here.
And the congresswoman has a new book coming out next month, called “Undaunted.”
here is a heads up about some upcoming activities in the USA and abroad to help you on your healing, learning, helping journeys
Subject: Coming ICSA events. Please tell others who might be interested.Connecticut, Los Angeles, England, Poland, Massachusetts.
Call for Papers: ICSA 2019 Annual Conference
University of Salford
Greater Manchester, UK
July 4-6, 2019
More info: http://www.icsahome.com/events/callforpapers
2. Recovering From Spiritual Abuse: A Conference for Survivors, Churches, and Helpers
October 26-27, 2018
3. Recovering from Cults and Coercive Control: A Workshop for Former Members and Families
October 13, 2018 (Saturday)
Los Angeles, CA
4. Recognizing and Recovering Self Esteem: After Group Struggles
Saturdays October 13th, November 10th, and December 1st and 8th (9:00 – 11:00 AM)
Lakeville, MA (MeadowHaven)
5. Controversies in Religious Contexts
October 26-27, 2018
6. Surviving and Moving On After a High-Demand Group Experience: A Workshop for Those Born/Raised in Cults
April 26 – 28, 2019
More info: http://www.icsahome.com/events/workshopsgas
ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association)
P.O. Box 2265
Bonita Springs, FL 34133
Social Media: www.facebook.com/ICSAToday
Web site: www.icsahome.com
*Become a member of ICSA and gain access to an e-Library with over 23,000 items.
Young woman documents her brother’s joining the LEGION OF CHRIST, a controversial and much criticized relatively new religious order founded in Mexico and now in 40 countries. Critics of the order have labelled it “dysfunctional family” -and “intra-ecclesial sect”, meaning that the way it operates, control of Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotions is similar to a cult
ICSA News Desk shares articles of interest or importance with ICSA members who have signed up for News Desk. Selection of an article for the News Desk mailing does not mean that ICSA, its directors, staff, volunteers, or members agree with the content. ICSA provides information from many points of view in order to promote dialogue among interested parties
Coercive and Controlling Man Subjected Wife to Decades of ‘Cult-Like’ Abuse
Shetland Times in Headlines News
A man who subjected his wife to “one of the very worst cases of domestic abuse” procurator fiscal Duncan MacKenzie had ever seen, has been told to expect a stint in jail.
Robert Simmons, 62, of Sandness, admitted 11 charges spanning from 1988 until March of this year when he appeared at Lerwick Sheriff Court on Wednesday.
The court heard that the “regular church attendee” created an “almost cult-like” atmosphere in the family home, using religion as a justification for his “coercive and controlling” behaviour.
“She took a vow of obedience to me” reads one chilling statement, referring to his wife, that Simmons made in police interviews , read out in court.
Providing the sheriff with a lengthy narrative Mr MacKenzie told the court that Simmons had been in a relationship with his wife for 33 years, married for 30 of those.
During that time the couple had six children, all home-schooled. This meant that Simmons’ wife was “deprived of any interaction with others one would have experienced with a school environment”.
Viewing himself as the authority in the household Simmons very much “set the rules” and was also responsible for doling out punishment when those rules were broken.
But the rules were “changed frequently so that it became impossible for the complainer to get it right”, Mr MacKenzie said.
Simmons dictated his wife’s behaviour to the extent that he would draw up timetables which divided her day into 15-minute slots. If she failed to follow any of the tasks set out in these the result would be more punishment.
His wife was also forced to carry notebooks, including a “mistake book”, where she was forced to maintain a record of all the times she failed to please Simmons.
In another book she kept a “record of observations the accused would make about random aspects of life”. Police seized hundreds of these notebooks from their home, the fiscal said.
The cumulative effect of his campaign of abuse “completely eroded the complainer’s sense of self-worth”, Mr MacKenzie said.
After enduring two decades of domineering and abusive behaviour Simmons’ wife found the courage to reach out to Women’s Aid in 2015.
Mr MacKenzie read out the harrowing details of the 11 charges against Simmons, revealing systemic abuse over a prolonged period of time.
The first charge against Simmons comes from Christmas Eve 1988 when he repeatedly struck his wife on the head. During the 1990s one method of punishment involved having his wife stand in an outbuilding while he hosed her with cold water.
In 1991 he forced her into the boot of a car after she fled the house. The following year he compressed her throat to a point where breathing became restricted.
Another incident saw Simmons compel his wife to lie on the floor. He then placed his weight on her head by standing on it, giving her two black eyes.
In 1998 Simmons pushed his wife to the floor with a force that caused nerve damage which still causes discomfort to this day.
Another charge related to Simmons assaulting his wife in a car in May 2015, leaving her with a black eye and bloody nose. Later that year he hit her across the back of the legs with a plastic pipe.
The final charge against Simmons relates to various incidents of placing his mouth against his wife’s ear while shouting, swearing and uttering threats. “The complainer finds this terrifying”, Mr MacKezie said.
The procurator fiscal then went on to detail some of the statements Simmons had made to police after he was detained. On one occasion he confessed to doing “hands-on stuff”.
“She knows I’m serious when I do that”, he told the officers.
Mr MacKenzie said that it was “difficult if not nigh on impossible” to comprehend the impact the “accused’s behaviour has had on the complainer”.
He added: “The complainer is a fully-qualified and highly intelligent woman effectively robbed of all sense of self-worth.”
“He was someone to whom she deferred completely”, Mr MacKenzie later said, as he successfully argued for an indefinite non-harassment order.
Sheriff Philip Mann deferred sentencing for background report, a legal requirement in cases where someone could be given their first custodial sentence.
But he also warned Simmons to expect a jail sentence, saying that he could not envisage a defence or background report which would convince him to find a community-based disposal.
“It’s difficult to contemplate how I would reasonably look at alternatives to a custodial sentence”, Sheriff Mann told Simmons.
Simmons will receive legal representation next month when he appears for sentencing.
Baton Rouge Shooter Gavin Long’s Bizarre Sect
Gavin Long adhered to a separatist religious movement that followed a self-declared ‘Empress.’
The Daily Beast.
Like any new religious movement, the Washitaw Nation—to which Baton Rouge shooter Gavin Long adhered—has a fantastical origin story.
Its empress was born encased in her own placenta as the Louisiana bayou flooded. “I kicked out of [the placenta] on my own, and then [the placenta] rolled up on my head like a crown,” Vediacee Turner—known by followers as Empress Veriacee “Tiari” Waashitaw-Turner Goston El-Bey—claimed, according to a profile of the movement by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After a career that included being the twice-elected mayor of Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, Turner would go on to declare herself an indigenous American Washitaw, and claim that she was the rightful owner of land sold in the Louisiana Purchase. (The Washitaw Nation is not recognized as an indigenous tribe.) She also founded the movement that inspired Long to legally change his name and declare himself a sovereign citizen, not bound by the laws of the United States. Police reportedly found an identification card for the Washitaw nation in his pocket.
Documents obtained by the Kansas City Star on Monday show Long filed notarized documents to “correct” his name to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra in May 2015. The vaguely legalese-sounding document carried the name of the United Washitaw De Dugdahmoundyah Mu’ur Nation. He also attached a certificate of Live Claim Birth—a type of birth certificate—from the group.
It’s not clear who the supreme leader of the Washitaw currently is; Turned died in 2014. But a website proclaiming to be the “official” site of the movement says that Turner’s primary concern was asking people, “Have ya’ll read my book?” The Return of the Ancient Ones laid out the foundations for the movement.
“[The Washitaw] are, in the weird language of the empress, ‘indigenous’—descendants of the ‘Ancient Ones,’ the ‘black ones’ who Goston insists peopled this continent tens of thousands of years before white Europeans arrived,” according to the SPLC.
The SPLC’s Ryan Lenz told The Daily Beast the Washitaws are best described as “a black sovereign citizen group.”
Their self-proclaimed sovereignty means they offer identification cards and birth certificates, and members believe they don’t have to pay state or federal taxes, and that the laws of the United States do not apply to them. A passport from the group cost $250 in the 1990s, according to a 1999 report on the group by the SPLC.
The “official site” run by Alim El-Bey includes numerous references to the Moorish Science Temple of America, a religious movement founded in the United States in early 20th century, and widely believed to have inspired the Washitaw Nation and other Moorish separatist movements. (Alim El-Bey shared at least one of Long’s posts on his Facebook page, as The Daily Beast reported on Sunday.)
The MST was the “first mass religious movement in the history of Islam in America,” according to a book by religion scholar Richard Brent Turner, though its similarities with mainstream Islam were quite limited. In fact, self-appointed prophet Noble Drew Ali even created his own Qur’an and clung to Islam as a way to distance himself from his Christian oppressors.
“It was urban, anti-Christian, and multicultural, and it developed as a distinct missionary and Pan-Africanist political agenda,” Turner wrote.
Drew Ali incorporated aspects of Marcus Garvey’s beliefs, Islamic movements from the Indian subcontinent, and ideas from the black Freemason movement into his new creation. Fundamental to the Moorish Science Temple’s ideology is the understanding of black people not as black, but members of a greater “Moorish” nation that is supposedly part of the Asiatic race. Through such an understanding, members essentially shed designations given to them by white people and created another identity as part of a mythically powerful nation.
In Drew Ali’s heavily modified Circle Seven Koran, Marcus Garvey is hailed as a sort of minor prophet.
“In these modern days there came a forerunner of Jesus, who was divinely prepared by the great God-Allah and his name is Marcus Garvey, who did teach and warn the nations of the earth to prepare to meet the coming Prophet,” it reads, referring to Drew Ali as the prophet who “was prepared and sent to this earth by Allah, to teach the old time religion and the everlasting gospel to the sons of men.”
While the Washitaw Nation would later claim to be descendants of the “Ancient Ones” who dwelled on American land, according to some legends, Drew Ali was raised by Cherokee Indians, though he didn’t claim Native heritage. And, just like the Washitaws, Drew Ali’s organization issued “nationality cards,” while members wore the national uniform of fezzes and turbans—in part because of Drew Ali’s belief that they came from Moroccans. Drew Ali gave his followers names like El and Bey, which seemed to come together in the Washitaw empress’s chosen name of El-Bey.
Drew Ali’s attempt to rebrand his African-American adherents as Asiatic Moors, however, clashed with the Washitaw Nation’s vision in that it was fundamentally an attempt at assimilation. Drew Ali hoped that “he could change the political and economic fate of African Americans in the Jim Crow era by ethnicizing the name of the race and by changing the names of his followers, thereby erasing the stigma and slavery and distancing them from ordinary Negroes who were not respected as Americans,” Richard Turner, the religion scholar, wrote. As the Moorish nation, Drew Ali thought they would be able to integrate and assimilate, just like everyone else.
Drew Ali died under mysterious circumstances in 1929, and the organization sprouted offshoots after his death. Member Wallace Fard Muhammad would go on to found the Nation of Islam, which would preach its own distinctive form of Islam to African Americans.
In the 1990s, some members of the MST proclaimed themselves Moorish sovereign citizens, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. They adapted the ideas of the largely white—and often racist—sovereign citizen movement for their own needs.
Their members intermingled with those of the Washitaw nation, seeking to establish black personhood “through means that are powerfully upending, and at the same time completely fictional,” Lenz said.
And Long is not the first sovereign citizen in recent years to shoot at police. Father and son duo Jerry and Joseph Kane shot and killed two police officers during a West Memphis, Arkansas traffic stop in 2010. Under sovereign citizen logic, the government can’t stop them at traffic stops, because those laws do not apply.
“It’s a person who doesn’t want to be ruled,” Lenz said. “This is the most free country in the world. And yet this is a revolt against the concept of government.”
Last chance to register for recovery workshop in Colorado
ICSA’s recovery workshop for former group members has taken place in Colorado for the past 25 years. Attendees have given the workshop extremely high ratings year after year.
The facilitators, who have volunteered their time for many years, have decided that 2016 will be the last year for this workshop.
We have to give the center a final count of attendees one week before the workshop. Therefore, you or somebody you know has less than a week remaining to register for the workshop. Follow the link (or URL) below for more information.
Colorado Springs, CO, July 29, 2016 – July 31, 2016
ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association)
P.O. Box 2265
Bonita Springs, FL 34133
Web site: www.icsahome.com
Become amember of ICSA and gain access to an e-Library with over 23,000 items.
here is one testimony from a friend to a friend
about a Guy called David….who runs RAW IMPACT Ministries…(out of other people’s houses!)
” I met David on Facebook about 2 years ago in early 2014. He was a friend of one of my Facebook friends and she introduced me to him.
When I first messaged him it was far from a “normal” conversation like you would have when you first meet someone. He started to say he was getting these visions of me or for me and just started talking like some kind of oracle or prophetic wording. I am well educated on spiritual knowledge so it wasn’t that surprising at first. We kept talking via Facebook until he decided to take a trip to a town in my state about 45 minutes from where I live.
Then we met in person for the first time. At the time he was staying at one of his friend’s house in the town and I drove over there to meet him and the couple he was staying with. He was always giving advice or suggestions to the male of the family and saying he was hearing the words of god and was very convincing to believe him. Within about a week he had caused a lot of conflict between the man and his wife and their relationship was starting to destabilize.
David assumed everything he was doing was the right thing and from what I got it was that he was always right and the others were wrong or didn’t understand things like he did. He was very easy to get along with and I considered him a friend and after he caused the problems for the family, the man didn’t want him staying at their house anymore.
So I agreed to let him come stay at my house and he ended up staying for about 3 weeks until I decided I couldn’t stand him being at my house any more. While he was staying with me, he would a lay down and tell me he was going to meditate and receive visions or downloads from god and hearing the voice and following what the voice was telling him to do. I went along with it but he ended up manipulating me to a very high degree. I lost a lot of very important and valuable items I had put a lot of work and effort into. I had a very customized computer system and special artistic objects I had made and he convinced me almost all of that was useless and that I should take it down and completely change my lifestyle. So I agree and the destruction began. He would try to give me advice and tell me what I needed to do and convince me instead of me relying on my own judgement and discernment.
After that I told him he had to leave and once again he said god told him before that I was about to ask him to leave. He would get on the phone and talk to people sometimes event to the point of yelling at them preaching his word to do anything he could to make them believe. He clearly showed signs that he was somewhat unstable mentally.
Earlier before I met him in person, he convinced a young woman to fly from her home in Washington all the way to where he was living in Alabama and they were convinced they were soul mates but shortly after she arrived, she ended up leaving him after about a month. He also did this with another young woman not very long after and the same thing happened. I noticed women were very attracted to what he would post and say on Facebook. He was always posting this parable/poetic like words that he said was the voice of god telling him to post.
I had deactivated my FB acct last year for some time but decided to reactivate it earlier this year in Feb. I messaged him back and we talked a bit, but we weren’t as close as before. I noticed then that he was with the woman Sarah and she sent me a friend request right after David and I had talked again.
Then one day a couple of weeks later I had posted my opinion about some spiritual feelings and opinions I had and he commented that I basically didn’t know what I was talking about. I responded by telling him he was some kind of prophet that was too old school to understand the modern philosophies and to basically shut up. Immediately after I sent him that he banned me as a friend and I was no longer able to view his profile. He didn’t send any kind of message or anything for his reason to do so, just instantly banned me.
Then a few hours later Sarah sent me a private message saying I didn’t know anything I was talking about and that David was always right and correct and that I will always be miserable in my life because I don’t listen to the voice of god or follow god’s guidance and basically was very rude and condemning. After I read the message I tried to view her page but she had also banned me as well. So she sent me a message just telling me off and banned me before I could even response. So from what I noticed David tends to brainwash people into believing almost if not all of what he says and thinks. I personally find this rather disturbing and women are more susceptible to persuasion than men that were his friends, but there were also a few men who also would follow and believe him.”
Sent: Saturday, June 4, 2016 8:45 AM
Subject: How to Escape From a Cult in the 21st Century
How to Escape From a Cult in the 21st Century
The new documentary Holy Hell offers an unprecedented view of 20 years inside the Buddhafield religious group. We talked with apostates from Buddhafield to find out why they’re still grateful for a “cult” experience.
Jun 3, 2016
By Michael Agresta
Toward the end of Will Allen’s new autobiographical documentary Holy Hell, Danielle Lefemine, his friend and longtime associate in the controversial Buddhafield religious group, reflects on the 20-odd years of history related by the film and characterizes her experience in stark terms. “I was brainwashed,” Lefemine tells the camera. “I was in a cult.”
Over the course of its first hour, Holy Hell — released last Friday in New York and Los Angeles — has pointedly avoided these charged words. Rather than an exercise in casting judgment, Allen has built his film around unprecedented access to the inner workings of a secretive religious community: As the Buddhafield’s unofficial videographer for more than two decades, Allen documented the group’s evolution from an idyllic experiment in communal living and meditation practice in 1980s Santa Monica to a paranoid gang of guru-worshipping disciples in 1990s Austin. When the group’s charismatic leader, then known as Andreas, was caught in a sexual abuse scandal in the mid-2000s, many longtime members, including Allen and Lefemine, exited the group. Only in the film’s final chapter, describing their decision to leave the Buddhafield, do they use words like “cult” and “brainwash.”
It’s common for apostates to toss around such terms when discussing their past affiliations, but most sociologists now agree that “cult” represents a potentially dangerous designation. Contemporary debate over the term dates at least to the 1970s, with the rise of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. On one side were self-appointed experts from the so-called anti-cult movement, who warned parents and young people about the dangers of spiritual leaders who bewitched impressionable followers into brainwashed servitude. On the other side were more careful academics who viewed the cult panic as dangerous both to the lives of adherents and to the constitutional tradition of free exercise of religion.
These tensions reached their zenith after the Federal Bureau of Investigation siege and massacre at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Many scholarly observers blamed the tragedy on anti-cult activists, who had propagated the widespread vilification and dehumanization of Branch Davidians, and some of whom were advising the FBI. “After the Branch Davidian fiasco, people realized that the ‘cult’ label objectified groups in a way that made violence more possible,” says Diane Winston, the Knight Center Chair in Media & Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who studies the way religions are discussed in the public sphere.
To a large extent, the religious freedom-oriented academics won the late-20th-century battle of ideas over the “cult” label. Today, the preferred term is NRM, or new religious movement. Anti-NRM vigilante groups like Cult Awareness Network no longer threaten to kidnap adherents and forcibly “deprogram” them in hotel rooms and other extrajudicial locales, as they did from the late ’70s to the mid-’90s. For a while, even some journalists got the memo. “Groups that are controversial still get referred to as cults, but good journalists shy away from it now,” says David Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and perhaps the country’s foremost expert on how people exit NRMs.
Journalists haven’t exactly been shying away from the term in their coverage of Holy Hell, however. The film has been called an “exposé of a Californian cult” and “a textbook case of how a cult operates.” Perhaps the first widely disseminated apostate documentary to include extensive, behind-closed-doors footage from within a secretive religious group, Allen’s film is reviving a long-dormant public conversation about NRMs and manipulative psychological techniques. Along with that conversation comes a new interrogation of words like “cult” and “brainwash,” words ready to be re-discovered and re-litigated by a new generation.
Allen and the other Buddhafield apostates who appear in Holy Helltake a varied approach, appropriating “cult” while eschewing the demonization and objectification of NRM members that typically go along with it. “I like the term ‘cult’ simply because it’s so irreverent,” Allen said by phone from Los Angeles. “We never would have used it. It makes us laugh at ourselves. But I think the word has to be re-defined.” He and his friends have little charitable to say about the anti-cult movement, which threatened their lives and liberty in the early ’90s, but they’re serious about wanting to broaden popular understanding and empathy for what goes on inside an NRM, even a fringy, dishonestly led, abusive one like the Buddhafield. As a result, Holy Hell is a document of fascinating contradictions. It’s an old-school anti-cult exposé crossed with an open-minded, 21st-century effort to destigmatize individual NRM members; it’s also a thoughtful re-invention of the cult-apostate narrative in the exhibitionist tradition of reality television. In the end, Holy Hell is perhaps the fullest, most human view we’ve ever had of life inside an NRM — and the ever-complicated business of getting out of one.
According to sociological consensus, people who leave NRMs typically join a group that opposes their former group — called an “oppositional coalition” — and develop a narrative that suits both their new ties and individual needs. In the first essay of a 1998 collection of sociological studies about NRMs called The Politics of Religious Apostasy, Bromley calls this storytelling the “captivity narrative.” In Bromley’s foundational account, NRM leave-takers emphasize that they “were innocently or naively operating in what they had every reason to believe was a normal, secure social site.” Apostates will often claim they were “subjected to overpowering subversive techniques,” e.g. brainwashing, and endured subjugation and humiliation until they ultimately escaped or were rescued. Leave-takers will vigorously resist any “ambivalence” or “residual attraction” toward their NRM once they’ve departed the group — those expressions could be seen as evidence of untrustworthiness, according to Bromley — and conclude by issuing a public warning about the dangers of membership. It’s a straightforward script.
This after-school-special version of NRM membership will be familiar to anyone who came of age before the turn of the millennium. The 1981 fiction film Ticket to Heaven, about a young schoolteacher who attends a training camp for an NRM and becomes brainwashed, is a classic of this genre: The happy ending comes only when he is kidnapped by anti-cult types and deprogrammed. But research doesn’t support the Pied Piper-like captivity narrative popularized in the 1980s and ’90s. “At that point in time, many people believed that, if someone entered into a cult-like group, if they were deprived of sleep and the food they received was monotonous and bland, if they were sexually tempted and argued and bullied into obedience, that their minds would snap and they’d become brainwashed cult members, glassy-eyed, easily led,” Winston says. “Since then, people who study human behavior have come to the conclusion that brainwashing is not that simple.”
Holy Hell doesn’t begin like a typical captivity narrative. In Allen’s rendering, Buddhafield members join the group without coercion, of their own free will. Later in the film, each apostate interviewed offers extenuating reasons for why they stayed in the group too long, several laying the blame on Andreas’ psychological manipulation or groupthink inertia; nevertheless, all agree that they entered the group of because they found it socially and spiritually fulfilling.
“The hardest part of the film to make was the first part, to acknowledge that we were in this and we loved this, and to make him look good,” Allen says. From the beginning, Holy Hell presents the Buddhafield as spiritually ambitious, tolerant, and sexually open; one apostate refers to it wistfully as “the booty field.” Everyone in the group, it’s also worth noting, is extremely attractive — a recruitment philosophy that Allen attributes to Andreas’ genius for cultivating “social proof” — the notion that appearing happy, popular, and sexy confers legitimacy to an otherwise-controversial leader or group. “If he has a lot of beautiful people around him who support him, that keeps him safe,” Allen says. Another way Andreas protected himself was by frequently changing his name. In the group’s early days in Los Angeles, he went by Michel; recently, re-settled in Honolulu, he has adopted the name Reyji, or “god-king.”
Allen doesn’t like the term “brainwash,” in part because he believes it delegitimizes the hard work of daily meditation and ego suppression that he and other Buddhafield apostates still look back on with pride. “We thought of it as a cleansing of our brain,” Allen says. “We thought we were seeing things in a different way, that it was healthy. And it is healthy — for a semester, in a controlled environment, with a qualified teacher, with checks and balances. We weren’t doing that.”
The group followed an ad hoc program of spiritual exercises designed by Andreas to help adherents experience direct communion with the divine. Initially, much of it was borrowed from the teachings of Maharaji, an Indian guru who developed a large American following, known as “premies,” in the 1970s, while other Buddhafield ego-shedding exercises came from theater training. Holy Hell holds onto a sense of group spiritual achievement even through the film’s darker passages. Ex-Buddhafield members seem more likely to look back on their spiritual work as an impressive achievement that nonetheless left them vulnerable to Andreas’ predations than to recall it as a scam and a fraud.
“We were like the Navy SEALs of spiritual discipline,” Radhia Gleis, a Buddhafield member who was with the group for over two decades, says over green curry when we meet one evening in May in a suburban Austin shopping mall.
In its second half, the film conforms better with Bromley’s archetypal captivity narrative. For instance, Holy Hell directly confronts the various ways in which members were humiliated. Apostates recall sexual dimensions to “karma cleansing” sessions, weekly one-on-one meetings between Andreas and his adherents, during which they were encouraged to drop all defenses and confess their deepest secrets. Recorded audio from these sessions suggests Andreas groomed straight men for sexual encounters, and multiple apostates testify on camera that Andreas manipulated them into unwanted sex. Those and other accusations recall Bromley’s description of “overpowering subversive techniques.” “The dude was a hypnotherapist,” Gleis says. “He had his talons in our psyche every week.”
But Holy Hell doesn’t dwell on members’ powerlessness, and when I speak with ex-Buddhafield members about the film’s more ominous moments, they tell me their aim wasn’t to disown their actions, but rather to call out Andreas’ bad-faith mentoring. Gleis feels deeply betrayed by Andreas, even though he never asked her for sexual favors. “The real abuse is in the cleansing. That’s the real intimacy,” she says. “That’s where you shared every dark deep secret. He didn’t use it against me much, but sometimes he would.” Though Gleis admits that Andreas’ spiritual counseling helped her through difficult periods in her life, she has come to the conclusion that he was delving into his adherents’ inner lives more to enrich, titillate, and protect himself than to serve others.
For her part, Gleis flatly refuses to say she was “brainwashed.” “I made decisions based on lies,” she says. “But everyone was different. People came in at different levels of maturity.”
The subjects of Holy Hell bring nuance to their “cult” stories. It’s worth noting, though, that some held official roles so high up in the organization that their “captivity” narratives deserve special scrutiny. Both Gleis and Allen occupied exalted positions in the Buddhafield hierarchy. Gleis describes herself as the group’s “consiglieri” — she was the one who managed the early-’90s legal threat from CAN that chased the Buddhafield out of California, and she purchased Andreas’ Austin home, which became the group’s headquarters for a decade. Allen was a key member of Andreas’ “entourage,” a mostly male coterie of self-described “beautiful ones” who were financially supported by the group and spent their days massaging the leader and accompanying him on Speedo-clad excursions to Austin-area beaches and swimming holes. Both Gleis and Allen admit to lying constantly — to their family members, to lower-ranking Buddhafield members, and to each other.
Gleis says that at least one other longtime Buddhafield member thinks Holy Hell goes too easy on the entourage, insulating high-ranking apostates from the sorts of criticisms levied at Andreas. Bromley’s scholarship would critique this as the tension between “apostate” and “traitor” roles: Leave-takers, of course, don’t want to be seen as turncoats or losers of power struggles; they want to be seen as victims. “You can’t have a leader without followers,” Gleis says. “I think we are all guilty of a lot of lies.”
Toward the end of the film, Allen tracks down his former guru in Hawaii, where elements of the Buddhafield community have re-settled post-scandal. When he asks Andreas, on hidden camera, whether he’s “being a good boy” to current members of the group, it becomes clear that the chance to expose the group, and to break it up, is a central reason why so many ex-Buddhafield members have risked public humiliation to put their faces and stories onscreen. Nevertheless, Allen says his primary artistic aim was not to raise alarm about Buddhafield.
“I would like to see a dismantling of the group and everyone waking up and being in their own power,” he says. “But I did not make this movie for 100 people. I spent 20 years living for 100 people. I couldn’t spend four more years for 100 people. I made this movie for everyone else.”
This is where Holy Hell departs definitively from the ’90s-era captivity narrative formula and creates a new model for the genre, one that can reach the mainstream. By “everyone else,” Allen means the widest possible film-viewing audience: people of all ages, races, sexualities, religions, etc., most of whom will likely encounter Holy Hell not as a polemic of anti-cult advocacy but as a character-driven story of hope and disillusionment, tragedy and triumph — and a bit of an amusing freak show.
While Allen did belong to an explicitly anti-Buddhafield coalition when he first took leave of the group several years ago — Gleis refers to a period of “innies” and “outies” arguing against each other — by the time he began editing footage, that alliance had faded as apostates began to move on with their lives. By then, Allen’s key organizational ties were to film-business players like the Sundance Institute, where he worked on Holy Hell as a fellow, and later Jared Leto, who became executive producer on the film.
It’s no dig at Allen to note that the resulting story includes a narrative arc that follows confessional conventions established by Oprah and reality television, and that the cathartic result is a people-pleaser. (Indeed, two ex-members mentioned rumors that Leto is pursuing plans to serialize the Buddhafield story.) Over the course of the film, apostates cast their stories as journeys of seeking and overcoming, stories that unfailingly culminate in personal growth. There are moments when viewers might envy the experience described by these apostates — by the end, membership in a controversial NRM begins to sound like a vital opportunity. The so-called “cult” experience, however abusive, comes off as a liberating net benefit.
I met former Buddhafield member David Christopher on a plane from Austin to Salt Lake City in January. He wore a Holy Hell baseball cap and passed out business cards to fellow passengers traveling to the Sundance Film Festival. Later, watching the Holy Hell premiere, I’d learn that he had given up a fledgling acting career to join the Buddhafield in the mid-’90s and was now hustling to break back into the business. (All the Buddhafield apostates I spoke to were to some extent involved in the entertainment industry.)
Months later, in a quiet South Austin café, I asked Christopher whether he would call the Buddhafield a cult. “I had to re-define what that word means for me,” he said. “I re-defined it in terms of: Any group or organization that tries to control your process of thinking, through any kind of guilt, coercion, or shame, may be a cult. If you think in those terms, the Catholic Church may be our biggest. But what about the NFL? What about your own family?”
“Your own family has a way of being, and you grow up in that programming, and there’s a language that you use, and a lot of times your parents have an idea of what you should be, and if you want to have an independent thought that goes against that, you might be guilted or shamed because you’re trying to go against the grain,” Christopher continued. “That is a cult. What I often tell people is, I joined a cult to escape a cult. The cult I left was my family. I left my not-so-good programming for a programming I thought was better. And it was better, much higher. But then I had to leave that programming only to find my own authenticity and my own voice, without anybody else’s conditioning. For me, that’s empowerment.”
Allen, on the verge of his first big film release, and Gleis, who is trying to launch a naturopathic television network, echo similar sentiments. “The first five years, I learned love and selflessness and humility,” Allen says. “The next 15 years, I learned a lot of other things — the hard way. They were hard lessons to come by, but very valuable to me.”
Sociologists and veterans of the Waco tragedy may wince to see Holy Hellrehabilitating the word “cult” and returning it to the headlines. But, in Allen’s rendering, the term assumes a different and less dehumanizing meaning. When Lefemine says, at the end of Holy Hell, that she was in a “cult,” the emphasis is not on belittling the group or re-opening the possibility of ’90s-style anti-cult violence. Instead, she’s spinning a tale of self-discovery, relatable to anyone who’s had to make a break with an abusive family, a bad marriage, or a soul-crushing job. “I was in a cult,” in her phrasing, is not substantively different from, for example, “I married a jerk.” The moral of the story is a warning, but a broad one, about just how bad any group can get if you stay too long and ignore the warning signs: The Buddhafield apostates went there so you don’t have to.
Gleis suggests that even Andreas/Reyji may be excited to see Holy Hell, even though the film treats him as a villain. His narcissism reflects one reason whyHoly Hell’s version of the cult apostate narrative feels so much a product of our media-saturated age. “Andreas always wanted to be a star in a movie,” Gleis says. “Well, you got your wish, dude. He’s up there on that cross where he always wanted to be.”