8 Feb 2023

How to not join a cult

From Afternoons, 1:15 pm on 8 February 2023
Anke Richter

Anke Richter Photo: supplied

Anke Richter is the author of Cult Trip: Inside the world of coercion and control and is delivering workshops on how to cult proof yourself.  

Most cults don't look like we expect them to, Richter says - she believes a crypto cult is touring in Aotearoa at present, while she has also heard of a yoga cult, a Buddhist one and a pole-dancing one among others. 

"So it's across the spectrum - any group can turn into something problematic." 

Richter prefers to refer to a cult as a high-demand or a high-control group. 

"It's the controlling of your life... but also controlling the narrative, controlling the information you get."

It can be more subtle than preventing access to the media, but instead directing people not to trust the media and urging them to follow a particular YouTube channel, for instance. Influence can also extend to controlling what people eat or their sex lives. 

"It often starts in very subtle ways and you don't see it straight away ..."

Richter says there is an us versus them mentality pushed within cults with followers encouraged to believe the cult leaders have all the answers and can heal their followers. 

If their message was full-blown about what they stood for people would not join but they get drawn in gradually, she said. 

It is often people who are looking for something, wanting a deeper meaning to their lives or perhaps they have had a setback such as losing their job who end up in cults. 

One warning sign is if a member feels fearful of speaking up or criticising the group, especially the leader. 

"That's always a massive red flag, [also] if there is no feedback system in place or it's just a pro forma thing but they don't take that seriously. 

"If there's noone where the community can actually go to if something doesn't feel right, especially if something bad has happened to you and there's no way to bring it up and there is no real code of conduct around that - that's a really big red flag." 

If a person raises objections and it is turned back on them that is another danger sign, Richter says. 

A teacher having sex with a member or having favourites is among a long list of other negative signs. 

Her advice to people who have relatives embroiled in a cult is not to criticise them or their beliefs. 

"Stay in touch with them, hold out your hand, show them your love and just be that point of reason and normality outside of the cult because at some point something is going to give, something is going to crack for them and if they know they are not going to be shamed by you and ridiculed for having been in that belief system... that's super important." 

Richter wants better support services for those who leave cults, such as a government-funded anti-cult agency. 

"I think it's desperately needed," she says.